BELLEFONTE, Pa. — After a gripping, emotionally charged four days of testimony that saw eight men from 18 to 28 years old tell jurors that Jerry Sandusky sexually abused them as children, the former Penn State assistant football coach will soon get to tell his side of the story.
Sandusky himself could take the stand in his own defense at his criminal trial, but it’s not certain that will happen.
During his first remarks to jurors, his lawyer Joe Amendola suggested he might, though the jury has already heard an audio recording of a stilted television interview Sandusky conducted shortly after his November arrest, denying the allegations against him.
Amendola’s opening statement, court documents and four days of witness cross-examination provide something of a road map to the defense’s strategy, which has been aimed at creating enough doubt in jurors’ minds to avoid a conviction that could send Sandusky to prison for life.
The defense has sought to show how the stories of accusers have changed over time, that they were prodded and coached by investigators and prosecutors, that some are motivated to lie by the hopes of a civil lawsuit jackpot, and to paint Sandusky’s interactions with children as misunderstood and part of a lifelong effort to help, rather than victimize them.
“Jerry, in my opinion, loves kids so much that he does things none of us would ever do,” Amendola said at the start of trial.
Lawyers pursuing a credibility defense try to give jurors reasons to disbelieve the narrative presented by prosecutors, and a financial gain motive or a changing story can be part of that, said University of Pittsburgh law professor David A. Harris.
“This is all standard procedure for building a reasonable doubt defense,” said Harris, who has worked as a defense lawyer and prosecutor. “What they don’t have here is any way to say, ‘OK, these kids have been molested, but somebody else did it.’”
The first four days of testimony, however, may have already cast the die, if jurors have made up their minds about the credibility of the eight accusers, young men ages 18 to 28, six without a father in their lives, three who have never known their fathers. That doesn’t mean they can’t be swayed by defense evidence, and the judge will caution them to keep an open mind, Harris said.
“But what we’re talking about is human nature here, and people have heard a lot already,” he said.
In a large and crowded courtroom, with a crush of national media watching their every word, the accusers recounted in detail their experiences with the 68-year-old Sandusky, allegations that include severe sexual attacks of children too scared and too small to escape or fight back.
Their testimony is the heart of the case the government has been trying to prove, in the words of lead prosecutor Joe McGettigan, that Sandusky has been a predatory pedophile.
The men said he plied them as children with gifts, dazzled them with the prestige of Penn State’s vaunted football program and then scaled up physical contact from a hand on the knee or a fatherly kiss to fondling, repeated oral sex and in some cases violent anal rape.
In a recent court filing, Sandusky’s lawyers have asked the judge to allow them to put before jurors the out-of-court statements made by the former Penn State president Graham Spanier and Tim Curley and Gary Schultz, two university administrators who are fighting criminal charges they lied to the Sandusky grand jury and did not properly report suspected child abuse. If permitted, that could help Sandusky undercut the credibility of a witness who says he saw Sandusky sexually abusing a yet-unidentified boy in a team shower more than a decade ago. The judge has not ruled on the request.
The defense also wants Judge John Cleland to allow into evidence the entire contents of “Touched,” Sandusky’s autobiography, saying in a court motion that the entire book would “contextualize the quotes and avoid misleading characterizations,” although so far prosecutors have used the book mainly as a source of photos.
On Friday, Sandusky’s lawyers won an effort to argue that letters and other alleged grooming by Sandusky were not an attempt to manipulate the boys so that he could molest them, but rather evidence of “histrionic personality disorder” on Sandusky’s part.
During cross-examination, Amendola pressed the accusers for dates and locations, details of their involvement with the kids’ charity Sandusky founded, arrests or drug problems, contacts they have had with Sandusky in the years since the alleged abuse ended and the terms of representation deals with civil lawyers. At least six said they told incorrect or incomplete stories in early contacts with police, and three testified that some of the details only came back to them in recent years.
In some cases, the witnesses said they were embarrassed or did not want to get dragged into the case, while others spoke of recent improvements in what they recall.
Amendola questioned so-called Victim 1, whose case began the wider investigation, about whether he had ever told a neighbor he and his mother would get rich from a civil suit.
“No, I have dreamed about living in a big house, I have dreamed about driving nice cars,” Victim 1 testified. “Doesn’t everybody?”
The young man described as Victim 7 said his memory of the allegations has improved since he began counseling a year ago.
“Through counseling and through talking about different events and through talking about things in my past, different things have triggered different memories and I had different things come back,” he testified. “It’s changed a lot about what I can remember today and what I could remember before, because I had everything negative blocked out.”
Jurors appear to be paying very close attention to the trial, which in its first week moved along more quickly than many observers have predicted. The rapid pace has left the prosecution close to wrapping up its case in chief, something that could happen as early as Monday. After the 20th prosecution witness finished on Thursday, Cleland announced a three-day break but did not explain the reason, and lawyers remain under a gag order that largely limits what they may say publicly.
During jury selection Sandusky’s lawyers asked potential jurors about ties to a list of people who might be witnesses, including members of Joe Paterno’s family and Sandusky’s wife Dottie. It is unclear, however, which of them will take the stand, whether Sandusky himself will testify or whether the defense will call any witnesses at all.
It can be difficult for any defendant to hold up under the questions of a skilled cross-examiner, said Harris, the Pitt law professor, and defense attorneys are normally reluctant to play that card.
“If they put him on, that’s really a sign that they think they cannot succeed unless they put him on,” Harris said. “Because it’s a huge risk.”
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