Jerry Sandusky Trial: The Defense Reveals Its Strategy

In a dramatic opening day in court, the ex-Penn State coach was confronted with an alleged victim—while his lawyers claimed that his accusers had a financial motive. Diane Dimond reports.

06.12.12 2:12 AM ET

Bellefonte, Pennsylvania, the site of the sexual abuse trial of former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky is a small town that somehow seems stuck in the 1950s. Down the hill from the Centre County courthouse is a faded Rexall Drug and Hallmark card shop, a worship and Bible study storefront, and the Bellefonte Elks Lodge #1094. Kitty-corner to the courthouse is a seniors’ residence with a second-floor balcony, where curious residents smoke as they watch the media flurry below.

The parking meters that dot the streets near the court take only enough quarters for two hours' time. City fathers obviously never anticipated that a flood of 250 credentialed reporters would someday descend upon the town, tethered to a courtroom for a full day. The accumulated five-dollar tickets will surely be a boon to town coffers.

And during opening statements to the jury, Sandusky's attorney, Joe Amendola, all but said his "naive" client is also stuck in the 50s.

"He was an only child," he told jury, made up of seven women and five men, as he stuffed his hands in his pockets. "Jerry's parents ran a rec center for kids. They played together, showered together ... And Jerry has this deep-seated love of kids. He said when I grow up I'm gonna help kids too!"

When Sandusky galumphed into court for the beginning of this trial he appeared a bit childlike and bewildered in his crumpled sage green suit. He quickly sat and sometimes took notes during the opening statements.

While the facts of the government's case against Sandusky have been well reported—more than 50 charges of sexual conduct involving 10 accusers—Amendola's opening was the first in-depth look at Sandusky's defense. The attorney zeroed in on the multiple times police investigators questioned the accusers over a three-year period and how their stories evolved over time to reveal ever more graphic sexual detail. "Money is a motivating factor in this case," Amendola said. "These young men had a financial motive in this case.” He offered no elaboration.

Prosecutor Joe McGettigan delivered a folksy and powerful opening statement, also standing just six feet in front of the jury box. He could be heard well by the jurors, but not by a majority of the packed, high ceilinged courtroom—12 rows deep and five rows wide. McGettigan told the jurors they would be hearing "painful and graphic" testimony from young men in their 20s, but urged the panel to remember that they were just young boys when the "serial predator" Sandusky allegedly did horrible, sexual things to them.

McGettigan projected boyhood photos of each accuser onto the court's big screen. Sandusky's gaze lingered on the photos.

The prosecutor also revealed the jury would hear from the defendant himself via two videotaped interviews Sandusky gave while awaiting trial—one to sportscaster Bob Costas, another to The New York Times. Legal experts roundly agree Sandusky's credibility was damaged by his statements to the media.

While the jury was attentive to the opening statements, their most riveted moments of the day came when the first witness was called to the stand after lunch. The now 28-year-old man is short in stature and appeared in a white shirt, dark slacks, and a tie. His brunette hair was close cropped, and he spoke in a clipped, almost matter-of-fact style. 

(The Daily Beast has chosen not to disclose the names of the alleged victims; other outlets may choose to do so.)

The young man told the jury he was 13 when he first met Jerry Sandusky in 1997, at a summer camp prorgram hosted by Second Mile, the charity that Sandusky had founded two decades earlier. Within a week, the man said, the famous assistant football coach called to invite him to a family picnic. While swimming in a lake, the witness continued, Sandusky groped his genitals. After that, and for more than two years, there were regular invites for the boy to join the coach for a host of activities—and, allegedly, ever increasing physical contact. 

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According to the witness, there was always some sort of exercise involved, followed by a shower. Within two or three showers, he said, they were playing the "soap game," where Sandusky would load his hand with foam from the dispenser and they would wrestle. "This led to him getting closer to me, bear hugging me. And with all the soap he would be caressing me ... He'd take my hand and wash his body" with it.

Every time they rode in Sandusky's car, the older man would "put his hand on my leg like I was his girlfriend,” the witness said. “It freaked me out.” But, no, at just 90 pounds, he never told the much larger man to stop, he said. Having come from a broken home, this was the first time in the boy's life he had a male figure paying attention to him, taking him to Penn State football games and to out-of-state bowl games. He was even allowed on the sidelines during the home games.

"I felt like I was the mascot," the witness said with a shrug and a bit of embarrassment for his misplaced youthful trust.

"Were the players nice to you?" the prosecutor asked.

"Oh, yeah," he answered.

"Was that a big deal to you?" McGettigan pressed.

"A huge deal. Huge," the witness replied.

Testimony about the alleged sexual behavior between man and boy was graphic at times as the young man described oral sex as well as attempts at digital and penile penetration in the Penn State coach's locker room and in the sauna. The prosecutor displayed on the big screen more than a dozen photos of the boy with Sandusky and the Penn State players, and about half a dozen handwritten letters from the coach to the child, some of which the witness described as "creepy love letters."

"I know I have made my share of mistakes," Sandusky wrote in one. "However, I hope that I will be able to say that I cared. There has been love in my heart."

On cross examination the witness alleged that at age 16, as he was trying to distance himself from Sandusky—going so far as to hide in a closet when the coach showed up at his house—the attention-starved older man drove him to buy pot, allowed him to smoke it in his car, and even bought him two cartons of cigarettes.

Why Amendola would raise a topic that put his client in such a bad light wasn't clear. But he did ask the witness what was likely on the minds of many.

"You seem like a forceful person now. Why did you put up with it?"

"I wanted to be a cool kid," the young man said again, repeating how much good came of his relationship with the former assistant Penn State football coach. "I thought I was the only person. Then I find out it happened over and over again and I didn't say anything." He paused and added, "I feel responsible that I didn't say anything about it before ... to save the others."

At the defense table. Sandusky's chin hit his chest and he kept his head bowed for a considerable time.

The prosecution also spent time asking the witness to describe sexual activity he said occurred in a hotel room in Texas where the boy went with Mr. and Mrs. Sandusky to the Texas Outback Bowl in 1999. It is known that federal investigators are looking at the possibility of filing Mann Act charges (taking a minor across state lines for immoral purposes) against Sandusky after this trial. In addition, legal sources attending the current court proceedings say they expect another grand jury indictment in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania that will name up to eight newly discovered Sandusky accusers.