Sandusky Trial Opens Near Penn State

The child sex-abuse trial of Jerry Sandusky opens Monday in Bellefonte, Pa. — just a few miles from Penn State University, where Sandusky was a longtime assistant football coach. Many of the jurors in the case have ties to Penn State. But legal experts say it's not clear how that will affect the trial.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene. Opening statements are beginning today in the sex-abuse trial of Jerry Sandusky, the longtime assistant football coach at Penn State University. Sandusky denies the charges that he sexually abused 10 young boys over the course of 15 years.

The case is being heard in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania, just a few miles up the road from Penn State's Campus. NPR's Joel Rose has the story.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: The Victorian mansions and Greek revival courthouse in Bellefonte were here long before neighboring Penn State grew into a giant research university. But these days, it seems everyone in Bellefonte has ties to Penn State, or knows someone who does. Bellefonte resident Tim Robinson teaches earth sciences at the university. He says everyone in this small town is watching the Sandusky trial, whether they want to or not.

TIM ROBINSON: It's not everybody's favorite topic of conversation. It's - kind of morbid, watch-a-train-wreck sort of fascination that we have. It's happening in front of us, and it's people we know, and it's connections that we have.

ROSE: Those connections extend into the jury box, too. More than half of the 16 jurors and alternates have either worked at Penn State, or attended classes there. But the judge says that is less important than whether each juror can keep an open mind. Legal experts say it's hard to predict whether the jury's familiarity with the Sandusky case favors the prosecution or the defense.

MICHAEL ENGLE: It could cut either way.

ROSE: Michael Engle is a criminal defense lawyer in Philadelphia.

ENGLE: An advantage, potentially, to the defense is that people who were loyal to Penn State, and perhaps hold Mr. Sandusky and others members of the football program in very high regard, they might say: We can't believe that someone of his stature could have ever done the horrible things he's accused of.

ROSE: That may be why prosecutors wanted to bring in a jury from another county. The defense fought to let a local jury hear the case, and won. But that strategy could backfire, says jury consultant Howard Varinsky.

HOWARD VARINSKY: You could have people thinking that he really betrayed us - and out to get him.

ROSE: There's one juror, in particular, who should make the defense team very worried, says jury consultant Melissa Gomez. The juror's husband works with the father of Mike McQueary, a key witness in the case, who reported seeing Jerry Sandusky molest a young boy in the showers at Penn State. Gomez says the juror's connection to McQueary should have been a red flag for defense attorneys.

MELISSA GOMEZ: I think everybody's surprised that person is on this jury. I find that she would be an incredibly dangerous person for the defense, especially because of the nature of the connection for her.

ROSE: The credibility of McQueary and other accusers could be crucial. In the grand jury presentment, Sandusky's alleged victims remain anonymous. But the judge ruled that they'll have to use their real names if they testify in court. Defense attorneys are expected to do everything they can to undermine the credibility of his accusers, and to portray Sandusky as a harmless old man. That's what Sandusky tried to do in his interview with NBC's Bob Costas last fall.

(SOUNDBITE OF NBC-TV NEWS SHOW)

BOB COSTAS: Are you sexually attracted to young boys - to underage boys?

JERRY SANDUSKY: Am I sexually attracted to underage boys?

COSTAS: Yes.

SANDUSKY: Sexually attracted? You know, I enjoy young people. I love to be around them. I - I - but no, I'm not sexually attracted to young boys.

ROSE: That interview was widely perceived as a major setback for Sandusky's defense. Still, attorney Michael Engle says Sandusky's lawyers may have no choice but to try the same strategy again.

ENGLE: There's a mountain of evidence out there that the defense has to try to undercut. That's a big task. And in order to carry the day, they may need the assistance of their client getting on the stand and testifying as well. If you think you can't win it without the defense hearing from your client, you have to take that risk.

ROSE: But the decision to put Sandusky on the stand in his own defense could still be several weeks off. For now, all eyes will be on the lawyers as they make their opening statements.

Joel Rose, NPR News, Bellefonte, Pennsylvania.

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