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Small town braces for the spotlight as Sandusky trial set to begin

BELLEFONTE, Pa. — He's just "Jerry" here.

The jurors are locals, and they have been familiar with Jerry Sandusky for decades. The former Penn State assistant football coach's trial on 52 charges related to child sex abuse is a big national story, as demonstrated by the satellite trucks surrounding the vintage courthouse just a 15-minute drive from the campus in State College. But in this close-knit community, Sandusky's alleged crimes are a local matter, and personal — an intimate tragedy.

Opening statements are scheduled to begin today. The trial could be wrenching: Some of Sandusky's alleged victims, heretofore referred to only by number ("Victim 1" … "Victim 2"), are expected to take the stand and add faces and voices and raw human emotion to the prosecution's case against him.

Sandusky, 68, has been accused of preying on 10 different boys over the course of 15 years. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges.

There are broader issues beyond the question of his guilt or innocence. It is unclear whether the trial will be the closing chapter of the Sandusky story or instead reveal deeper levels of dysfunction in the sometimes insular Penn State community.

The shocking grand jury report that set off this case last November, at the height of football season, declared that Sandusky had molested eight boys (two more alleged victims were identified later) and that university officials, including legendary head coach Joe Paterno, had failed to take enough action to stop him.

The scandal quickly cost the jobs of Paterno, the winningest coach in major-college football history, and Graham Spanier, Penn State's president of 16 years. Two administrators were charged with failure to report suspected child abuse and lying during the grand jury investigation.

Paterno died in January, still an icon but one whose final months were tarnished by the scandal.

Last week, the university released a statement expressing the hope that "the legal process will start to bring closure to the alleged victims and families whose lives have been irrevocably impacted and that they can begin the healing process."

Despite the psychological pain felt by this community, Sandusky did not want to be tried somewhere far away. He wanted to take his chances with people here in Centre County, where he worked nearly his entire life.

It took less than two days to assemble a jury that seems to mirror the community: 10 women and six men, all white by appearance, with more than half reporting a strong connection to the university, by far the county's largest employer.

"We're in Centre County. We're in rural Pennsylvania," Judge John Cleland said in court on Tuesday, when defense attorneys objected to a juror who knows the father of a potential key witness. "There are these (connections) that cannot be avoided."

The trial is expected to last as long as three weeks. As with other sex abuse cases, it will turn largely on the testimony of alleged victims of and witnesses to the abuse. A key witness may be Mike McQueary, a former assistant coach at Penn State who told a grand jury that more than a decade ago he saw Sandusky sexually assaulting a young boy in a locker-room shower.

Cleland last week denied requests by five alleged victims that they be allowed to testify in court using pseudonyms. All are now adults, and the judge said that there is "no support in Pennsylvania law for offering anonymity to an adult witness because the witness is one of a class of victims of a particular form of crime." He added: "While I will make every effort to be sensitive to the nature of the alleged victims' testimony, once the trial begins the veil must be lifted."

Still, the battalion of camera crews and photographers setting up Sunday afternoon faced the likelihood that they will not get a glimpse of jurors or witnesses entering the courthouse. Officials have constructed a tarp-covered walkway to shield people from view as they arrive in a vehicle at the rear of the building.

Also on the list of potential witnesses is Sandusky's wife, Dottie. Paterno's widow and son also were on the list, to their surprise.

The team of prosecutors is led by Joseph McGettigan, the senior state deputy attorney general, who is known for being aggressive and passionate in the courtroom. In 1997, McGettigan was the lead prosecutor in the case against John E. du Pont, the millionaire heir to the chemical fortune who was convicted of murdering an Olympic wrestler.

The defense is led by Joseph Amendola, a State College lawyer who loves to talk and has a history degree from Penn State and a law degree from Georgetown University.

Whether local jurors will be more sympathetic to Sandusky or more hostile — because of what the allegations have done to the university's reputation — is a matter of pretrial debate.

"We always held Penn State up because it was perfect. And it took just one person to ruin that," said Jeff Holter, 55, a Penn State graduate and education consultant who reported for jury duty Wednesday but was not selected.

Paloma Frumento, 24, who recently graduated and was called for jury selection but not picked, said, "In many ways, in public opinion, Jerry Sandusky is already guilty. But that's public opinion. There are facts. There's the law."

Small town braces for the spotlight as Sandusky trial set to begin 06/10/12 [Last modified: Sunday, June 10, 2012 10:26pm]
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