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The Sandusky Trial: Jury Selection at 'Centre' Stage

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"We're in Centre County. We're in rural Pennsylvania," he said. "There are these kinds of relationships that cannot be avoided."

The Honorable John M. Cleland - June 5, 2012.

On June 5th, the trial of former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky began. Though opening arguments will not take place until Monday, June 11th, yesterday's activities will shape the events of the next several weeks.The makeup of the jury will shape witness selection, questioning tone, argument style, and overall trial strategy and preparation, for both Joe Amendola and the prosecution.

Jury selection commenced yesterday in Centre County, where nine jurors were selected by the day's end. USA Today writes that "five of the nine jurors selected . . . acknowledged deep links to the school or to potential witnesses," the most widely reported of which was a Penn State football season ticket holder whose husband once worked with John McQueary, father of Mike McQueary, who is expected to be a star witness for the prosecution. Another is a student--a rising senior--who wore a Penn State archery t-shirt to the courthouse.

That so many jurors are connected to the university is no surprise. According to the Attorney General's office, one in three Centre County residents is tied in some manner to Penn State, a university that has seen its sterling reputation dragged through the mud after the grand jury presentment was leaked to the public exactly seven months ago. Hundreds more have probably volunteered, raised money, or donated to the Second Mile, the charity founded by Sandusky that ostensibly provided needed mentoring for troubled youths. In fact, as Judge Cleland pointed out to the attorneys yesterday, this is largely unavoidable, given the insular nature of the area, and the sense of community the university works so hard to engender.

On January 31st, the Commonwealth filed a motion to change venue, noting that "the unique nature of the Penn State community" requires it because "[t]he life of the University and Centre County are inextricably intertwined; both philosophically and economically." Of course, the Commonwealth was careful to "stress that this Motion expresses no editorial view of the motivation of capacity of any member of the Penn State community who might be called to serve as a juror."

Unfortunately, certain parties have not been nearly as careful as the prosecution.

Despite the fact that Judge Cleland denied the Commonwealth's motion nearly four months ago, several media outlets have suddenly decided to cover this story this week, with a noticeable editorial bent relating toward Centre County and the Penn State community. On May 28th, The Daily Beast published an upcoming article from Newsweek about the Sandusky scandal, and included the following passage:

The sentiment against alleged victims is so common here that prosecutors in February requested that the Sandusky jury pool come from somewhere beyond Centre County, where the school is located. It's almost certainly why, in what was a complete reversal of form for a high-profile case, defense attorney Joseph Amendola fought-successfully-against a change of venue. "That tells you how strange this whole case is," said Moushey. "I've covered a lot of high-publicity trials over the decades and most of the time it's the defense that wants to get out of Dodge."

In yesterday afternoon's recap, the Associated Press expressed a similar sentiment:

In the first questioning of 40 prospective jurors, about half said they or immediate family members worked at Penn State or were university retirees. One woman rented apartments to college students. Four knew Sandusky, a former Penn State assistant football coach. Two knew his wife.

Sandusky's lawyer won the right to have jurors chosen from the local community, and prosecutors had concerns that Centre County might prove to be nearly synonymous with Penn State. Sandusky had helped build the football team's reputation as a defensive powerhouse known as "Linebacker U," his arrest toppled Joe Paterno from the head coaching position just months before his death from cancer, and some of the alleged attacks on children occurred inside university showers.

And Yahoo!'s Dan Wetzel noted the possible biases of a "Penn State-centric" rural county:

Rather than seek a jury brought in from another part of the state, as prosecutors sought, Amendola fought vehemently to make sure the Sandusky case isn't just going to be held locally, it's going to be decided by locals.

The defense believes that a jury inundated with media coverage and public discussion, that has intimate ties to the school and the football program, and that possibly holds both passionate opinions on the demise of Paterno and a familiarity with the victims, can deliver an acquittal.

Amendola preferred that over a group shipped in from another part of the state, say the Philadelphia area, which is more racially diverse, less Penn State-centric and lives outside the Sandusky-trial fish bowl.

"We feel there's no better place than Centre County from which to select fair-minded individuals to sit as jurors in Jerry's case," Amendola argued in February, after prosecutors sought to bring in a jury made up of residents of another part of the state.

Amendola convinced Judge John Cleland to seat a jury right out of this mostly rolling, rural county of about 154,000 people, a place that would be anonymous if not for being home to mammoth Penn State and its powerhouse football program.

Of course, some of the quoted stories attempted to provide minimal balance. Wetzel even begrudgingly notes that Joe Amendola is engaged in "quite a gamble." But the implication of the language is clear - the rural, unsophisticated residents of Centre County are so focused on protecting mammoth Penn State and its powerhouse football program that it will do something that no jury culled from any other community would do - acquit Jerry Sandusky, because he's one of their own.

That's a really interesting, salacious theory. It's sure to sell papers and advertising space. Except for one thing.

It's demonstrably untrue.

Forget for the moment that Amendola didn't "win the right to have jurors chosen from the local community"--because that's the default setting and Amendola merely opposed the Commonwealth's motion, noting that trial publicity was so pervasive that the venue didn't matter. Forget for the moment that Newsweek proffered zero evidence that "sentiment against the alleged victims is so common" in Centre County. Instead, take a look at the comments of Centre County residents themselves.

Like the potential juror who was dismissed yesterday because she told the court that "news coverage of the case has been destructive to her community."

Like Jonna Jabco, a Bellefonte beauty salon owner who told the Patriot News that the trial "is not a good thing." Or Marcia Marlett, a Bellefonte resident who told the media that the scandal "has been an embarrassment to the town and Penn State." Or Vicky Hammaker, a Centre Hall resident who told reporters that she will "be glad when this is over."

A cursory view of the comments in this blog show how upset Penn Staters are with Jerry Sandusky. In fact, Sandusky's own attorney basically acknowledged today that people with Penn State connections could be damaging to his client's defense. Amendola was prepared to use a peremptory challenge on the season ticket wielding juror before being talked out of it by his client. And it was Amendola who tried to get the student out of the jury pool, but Judge Cleland denied his challenge.

The most nuanced view of jury selection this week came from Forbes' Kathryn Casey, who noted that the science of jury selection "is far from black and white." Most media members would do well to keep that in mind, as this trial progresses to far more complicated issues.

In Other Trial News. Sue Paterno, Joe Paterno's widow, and Jay Paterno, his son and Penn State's former quarterback coach, were listed as prospective witnesses during yesterday's jury selection . . . ABC News reports that "intimate love letters" allegedly written by Sandusky to Victim 4 will be read into the record . . . Sandusky is "likely to face a federal indictment" . . . Selected jurors will not be sequestered.

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