With closing arguments set for Thursday, the criminal trial to decide the fate of former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky will go to the jury in record time: nine days.
The brevity seems to pale in comparison to the global attention on events starting in November, when Mr. Sandusky was arrested and charged with 52 counts related to the sexual molestation of 10 minors, all at-risk boys formerly in his charge as the leader of a charity organization designed to protect them. (The charges were later reduced to 51.)
The scandal not only tarnished the reputation of one of America’s most prestigious athletics program – and drew scrutiny to what appeared to be a coverup by top administration – but it also ended the legendary career of its beloved football coach, Joe Paterno, who died soon after.
As the nightmarish details of the alleged abuse emerged, it soon became clear that the subsequent trial would lack the complexities that force other high-profile trials drag to on for weeks or sometimes months: forensics, crime scene evidence, wiretaps, financial statements.
Instead, after nine days in the Centre County courthouse in Bellefonte, Pa., the jury must decide between two accounts of events: one that paints Sandusky as a monster who preyed on young boys, and a second that depicts his affections not as sexual but rather as the result of a mental health disorder.
Once the case gets handed to the jury for deliberation, the task will be weighty, but the decision clear-cut, says Michael Scotto, a former criminal prosecutor in New York City: “You believe [the victims] or you don’t. There’s not a lot of nuance.”
Attorneys representing Sandusky were criticized in the early weeks of his arrest for exposing their client to two media interviews, one for NBC and the other for the New York Times, both of which became immediate missteps: Sandusky denying the accusations but appearing unaware of the traditional boundaries between adults and children.
"If I say, 'no, I'm not attracted to young boys,' that's not the truth, because I'm attracted to young people – boys, girls … I enjoy spending time with young people,” he told the Times in December.
Needless to say, it wasn’t a surprise he never made it to the witness stand. Instead, lead defense attorney Joseph Amendola ushered in surrogates who vouched for Sandusky’s good character, the most powerful being Dottie Sandusky, his wife of 45 years. The grandmotherly Mrs.Sandusky countered the accounts of narratives, laid out by the alleged victims, that her husband molested them in the basement of their home, a hotel bathroom, and the locker room showers of the Penn State athletics department.
In a calm, but firm, delivery, she described most of the accusers as the needy ones in the relationship with her husband. She said one prosecution witness was “very demanding” and even “conniving.” Another “was a charmer.” “He knew what to say and when to say it,” she said.
This version of events fit into a defense strategy throughout the trial that suggested some of the victims' families elaborated their stories with hopes of earning a payday in subsequent civil litigation.
Andrew Pollis, a law professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, says the defense had no choice but to attack the credibility of the accusers, since it obviously felt that putting Sandusky on the witness stand wasn’t an option.
“They must have had some serious concerns about putting him on, because the only way to refute the accusations is to put [on the stand] the only person who can refute them and that’s him,” says Mr. Pollis.
Without Sandusky’s version of the story, Pollis says, the defense was forced to rely on surrogates, who ultimately could not testify to whether or not the abuse took place.
“It doesn’t matter how many [defense] witnesses come forward and testify on his behalf. None of them can say, for a fact, [the alleged victims] are lying. They can’t say that, because they can’t know,” he says.
Before resting its case Wednesday, the defense introduced additional theories that the alleged victims were coerced to elaborate the abuse by two state troopers and that Sandusky suffered from a mental health condition called "histrionic personality disorder" that is said to cause people to become overly affectionate to draw attention to themselves.
Mr. Scotto calls the strategy the “kitchen sink argument – throwing everything up there and seeing what sticks.”
“It’s a scattershot approach, but sometimes attacking everything and creating doubt by going on several fronts works,” he says.
The linchpin to the trial’s outcome could be the testimony of Mike McQueary, an assistant football coach who was the only witness – aside from the accusers – to the alleged abuse. Mr. McQueary testified last week that he saw Sandusky sexually assault a boy in 2001 in a Penn State locker room shower.
On Wednesday, the defense attempted to undermine McQueary’s testimony by putting on the stand Jonathan Dranov, a family friend, who testified that McQueary told him he heard “sexual sounds” from the shower. Rather than see a sexual act, McQueary only made eye contact with the boy before an arm reached out to pull the boy back into the shower, said Mr. Dranov.
The fact that the defense was forced to rely on testimony that did not refute that Sandusky was showering with the accuser shows a strong vulnerability in their case, says Scotto.
Dranov’s testimony “didn’t defeat the fact [that McQueary] said the boy was violated,” says Scotto. “I’m not sure that got [the defense] anything in the way of creating reasonable doubt."