A View From The Sandusky Courtroom
Just like that, Jerry Sandusky was standing a few feet in front of me.
It was a couple of minutes before 8 a.m. this morning, and I’d already been in the Centre County Courthouse in tiny Bellefonte, PA — about 10 miles north of State College — for nearly an hour, along with 100 other journalists and 100 members of the public who’d won a lottery to sit in on the preliminary hearing.
I was sitting in a pew four rows back in the gallery of the stately old courtroom, making small talk with ESPN reporter Bob Ley to help pass the time until the scheduled 8:30 hearing, during which the state was set to establish its child sex abuse case against Sandusky. During what promised to be somber and harrowing all-day proceedings, several of Sandusky’s alleged victims were in the building and prepared to testify in detail how the former Penn State football defensive coordinator raped and molested them.
Like me, most of the reporters in the room were chatting with one another or fiddling with their phones and laptops when Sandusky and his defense team, including attorney Joe Amendola — a fixture on the airwaves in the six weeks or so since Sandusky was first arrested — walked up the left aisle and stood briefly next to the empty box that would normally hold a jury, if this were a trial and not simply a procedural hearing.
Though everyone was awaiting his eventual appearance, him turning up just like that, with no fanfare, felt like a surprise. A hush fell over the room. Sandusky wore a dark suit and an expression that was a cross between grim and apprehensive. He looked smaller, older, wearier than he has during his recently televised perp walks or his videotaped New York Times interview.
And then, after about 30 seconds, Sandusky and his lawyers disappeared into the jury room at the back of the courtroom and shut the door.
Sandusky’s wife, Dottie — who’s come out publicly with her belief in her husband’s innocence — came into the courtroom along with about 20 family members and sat down in the front pew on the right side; the rest of the contingent filled in several rows behind her.
At 8:25, Sandusky returned to the courtroom, head down, no eye contact with anyone in the gallery, walking briskly to the defense table and taking a seat. He turned to his right and, smiling wanly, took a long look at his wife, who returned the smile. Sandusky turned back toward the empty judge’s chair and hunched over the table.
At 8:30, Judge Robert Scott entered the room. All rose. Scott asked if the lawyers on both sides were ready to proceed. Amendola asked to approach the bench. Prosecutors approached as well. A few whispers were exchanged, and Scott announced that Sandusky had waived his right to the preliminary hearing. Gasps filled the room. Scott asked Sandusky if he understood he was waiving his right to the hearing and Sandusky nodded. Scott said he would move forward with an arraignment and eventual trial date, and just like that, at approximately 8:34, it was over.
Bob Ley sighed. He drove all the way from Connecticut for this. Other reporters resigned to a long day of testimony rushed out of the room in disbelief, phones to ears. Outside the courtroom, where dozens of broadcast news crews, plus photographers and more reporters who hadn’t been granted access to the courtroom — at least 100 more people in all — were set up and waiting, TV anchors quickly primped and scribbled notes as they went live with news of the abrupt cancellation of the hearing.
After several minutes, Pennsylvania Deputy Attorney General Marc Costanzo approached a podium set up between the courtroom and the cameras. He announced that an arraignment date was set for Jan. 11th, and that the Commonwealth had 11 people on hand to testify against Sandusky — testimony canceled when Sandusky waived the hearing.
“This is terrific for the victims,” said attorney Michael Boni, who represents Victim 1 (whose allegations are detailed in the Sandusky grand jury report). “They don’t have to re-live the horrors they experienced on the witness stand today, and it still delivered the same result [a criminal trial].”
“We hope it’s an indication that a plea deal is down the road,” Boni added, since his client and the other victims will still have to testify during the trial. But Costanzo told the assemblage that “there have been no discussions regarding a plea bargain.”
Sandusky, meanwhile, had already slipped out the back of the courtroom and headed home, where he’s still on house arrest.
Just after 9:30, Amendola approached the podium. All the reporters and members of the public gathered around — a couple hundred people in all. Amendola tried to work the crowd like they were a jury listening to his opening statement. He spent an hour explaining why they waived the preliminary hearing: They wanted to prevent the “rehashing of the allegations on tonight’s evening news,” and said the defense wouldn’t have been able to call into question each testifier’s credibility today — the central defense strategy, Amendola revealed. He attacked the credibility of PSU assistant football coach (and likely prosecution witness) Mike McQueary: Amendola said anyone who believes McQueary’s account of discovering Sandusky raping a boy in a Penn State shower in 2002, which Amendola insists doesn’t make sense, “should call 1-800-REALITY.” And he attacked the alleged victims themselves, all of whom Amendola claimed were motivated by financial reasons. Many reporters openly gasped and scoffed when Amendola made that particular accusation.
Amendola — who said Sandusky will also waive his right to the Jan. 11 arraignment, and expects a trial to commence in late-summer or fall — told reporters that Sandusky is innocent, “depressed and devastated,” and that Amendola feels “the Commonwealth is out to get [Sandusky].” A woman standing nearby — it was unclear if she was a reporter or simply a bystander — began heckling Amendola at that last remark. “Awwwwwww, SORRRRRYYYYY,” she shouted, briefly rattling Amendola.
Amendola also claimed that the defense team knows the identity of most of the accusers, and is still investigating to find out the rest. And he didn’t rule out more Sandusky interviews with the media akin to the recent Bob Costas and New York Times interviews–widely derided as foolish and potentially damaging to the defense. “I’ve always felt Jerry had to tell the public himself that he’s innocent.”
Stressing repeatedly that Sandusky will not take any kind of plea deal ahead of his trial, Amendola said that “[Sandusky] remains totally prepared and committed to defending his innocence.”
“This is a fight to the death,” he added. “This is the game of Jerry Sandusky’s life.”
Here’s some video I shot of Amendola outside the courtroom explaining why they waived the preliminary hearing: