BELLEFONTE, Pa. — Picking 12 people to decide Jerry Sandusky’s fate in the child-molestation case that brought down coach Joe Paterno and scandalized Penn State could prove a monumental task in a county where practically everyone went to the university, works there, knows someone there or is a fan of the football team.
Jury selection is set to begin Tuesday in the case against Sandusky, the 68-year-old former assistant Penn State football coach accused of sexually abusing 10 boys over 15 years. The proceedings will take place in Bellefonte, about 10 miles from State College, home of the university.
The prosecution and defense will have to find jurors who say under oath they can be impartial — potentially a tall order given the extraordinarily heavy news coverage of the scandal, the area’s strong connections to Penn State, and the wide reach of the youth charity Sandusky ran.
“It’s going to be a very, very difficult chore to pick a jury in that community,” said Brian McMonagle, a Philadelphia defense attorney unconnected to the case.
Whether those Penn State ties work to the advantage of the defense or the prosecution remains to be seen.
Prosecutors, though, were so concerned that they asked Judge John Cleland to bring in prospective jurors from another county.
“The life of the university and Centre County are inextricably intertwined, both philosophically and economically,” prosecutor Joseph McGettigan wrote. “To ask members of that community to … insulate themselves from the institution which informs so many aspects of their lives is asking too much.”
Cleland rejected the request but said he would reconsider if a jury isn’t selected in a reasonable amount of time.
The proceedings will begin with a pool of 200 prospective jurors out of a county of 154,000 people. They will be questioned about their feelings about Sandusky and the case, and about any personal ties to the opposing lawyers or to the defendant, who for more than 30 years ran a charity in State College where prosecutors say he met his young victims.
The defense opposed bringing in an out-of-town jury.
Edward Schwartz, a jury consultant in Lexington, Mass., said he suspects the defense will try to shape the case in such a way that the jury will take out its frustration about Paterno’s firing and Penn State’s tarnished image on the prosecutors who brought the charges.
There’s risk in such a strategy, however: The jury could instead blame Sandusky for “single-handedly bringing down the reputation of an institution they love and they feel an attachment to,” Schwartz said.
Paterno was dismissed in November for not acting more decisively in 2001 after a member of his coaching staff reported seeing Sandusky in the locker room showers with a boy. Paterno died of lung cancer in January at age 85.
Stephen Capone, a Pittsburgh-based lawyer of 32 years, said the judge will probably not automatically disqualify anyone with a Penn State connection. Instead, he said, he suspects the judge will ask prospective jurors if their ties to the university would prevent them from rendering a fair decision, and those who answer yes will be dismissed.
Prosecutors and defense attorneys will also have a certain number of so-called peremptory challenges, which allow them to remove a potential juror without having to give a reason.
Ultimately, it may be impossible to find a jury that has no connection to Penn State or has never heard of Sandusky. The goal, McMonagle said, will be to find jurors who say they can give Sandusky a fair trial and render their verdict based on the evidence and testimony, not on what they have heard or read.
The nightmare scenario for either side, outside lawyers say, is that a prospective juror will hide his or her true feelings to get on the jury.
“The scariest thing in the world is the reality that some jurors have already formed an opinion and simply won’t man up to it,” said McMonagle, who has tried many high-profile cases. “They’re sitting there like time bombs. That’s the fear you always have to endure in a high-publicity case, particularly in a case like this.”
On Monday, the judge ruled that Sandusky’s alleged victims will have to testify using their real names, and that tweets or other electronic communications by reporters will not be permitted during the trial. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court, meanwhile, dashed Sandusky’s hopes for a last-minute delay of the trial.
Lawyers for several of the accusers had asked that their clients be allowed to testify under fake names, a rarity in criminal cases.
“Arguably any victim of any crime would prefer not to appear in court, not to be subjected to cross-examination, not to have his or her credibility evaluated by a jury — not to put his name and reputation at stake,” the judge said. “But we ask citizens to do that every day in courts across the nation.”
News organizations, including The Associated Press, typically do not identify alleged victims of sex crimes.
Penn State said on a website Monday that the scandal had cost the university $9.6 million as of March 31. That does not include the hiring of two new public relations firms in April for about $2.5 million to help with the fallout from the crisis.