Can Anybody Defend Jerry Sandusky?

Experts say no defense team or strategy will be able to save the ex-coach. By Jessica Bennett and Jacob Bernstein.

Gene J. Puskar

The abridged version of the Jerry Sandusky saga goes something like this:

Ten alleged victims, many of whom have claimed repeated instances of sexual molestation.

A disastrous interview with Bob Costas, in which Sandusky, 67, hesitated when asked whether he is sexually attracted to young boys.

A preliminary hearing in which observers expected the former Penn State assistant football coach, charged with 52 counts of sexual abuse, to be torn to shreds by the testimony of his accusers.

It looked damning, for sure. So as reporters swarmed the Centre County, Pa., courthouse, in the small town of Bellafonte, on Tuesday—the scene of what was to be Sandusky’s first face-to-face meeting with the men who’d accused him—the world wondered: What possible defense strategy could this man’s lawyer, Joseph Amendola, have up his sleeve? How could he defend a case that seems so hard to argue?

They would find out quickly. Two minutes into the scheduled preliminary hearing, a judge announced that Sandusky had waived his right to the court appearance. As his lawyer explained it, the move would save his client from being retried in the public eye. Further, since the defense isn’t allowed to call witnesses during a hearing of this sort—and has limited powers of cross-examination—the advantages of finding out what the victims had to say were outweighed by the damage it could do.

But, hey, it didn’t hurt to have all those reporters in one place.

“This is a fight to the death,” Amendola told a crowd of at least 100, huddled outside the courthouse in below-freezing temperatures. For the next hour, he would paint the broad strokes of what his client's defense would be.

At its core, at least for now, is Mike McQueary, the ginger-haired Penn State assistant coach who is alleged to have walked in on Sandusky anally raping a young boy in a locker-room shower in 2002—but instead of calling police, went home and told his father, as detailed in a grand-jury report. McQueary is a key witness in the prosecution’s case, yet even as more victims have come forward, his account has gotten shaky. In emails to friends, McQueary denied part of what was in the grand jury report, claiming he went to police and stopped the rape. Police, however, deny that they were ever called.

Then, late last week, The Patriot-News of Harrisburg ran a third account of that shower scene, suggesting that McQueary had not really witnessed sexual contact at all, but merely, a suspicious situation. First, loud noises, then the sighting of a young boy, and finally an adult arm (presumably Sandusky’s) pulling the child “back out of view.”

“We have enough inconsistencies at this point to totally wipe him off of our case,” Amendola said of McQueary on Tuesday. He added: "To the extent that we destroy his credibility, we put everybody else’s credibility in question.”

It’s a typical tactic, say legal scholars: take down the prosecution’s case, witness by witness. “He’s going to get into the specifics, and see how much recollection [each] has,” says Jerry Johnson, the former U.S. attorney for Western Pennsylvania, now in private practice. “He’s going to address their credibility, their memories, why they didn’t come forward sooner.”

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Already, Amendola has raised questions about the account of victim No. 9, whose testimony was released in a second grand-jury report. In it, the victim describes having been repeatedly sexually assaulted in the basement of Sandusky’s home, his screams for help going unanswered.

Yet Amendola claims that as of last fall, that victim, now old enough to decide where he does and does not want to go, attended a football game with Sandusky. As he sees it, the allegations may have less to do with inappropriate contact and more with making a quick dime.

“What greater motivation could there be to say 'I'm a victim' than money?” he asked.

Still, while legal experts praised Amendola’s performance Tuesday afternoon—to say most had wondered what kind of lawyer would put a bumbling guy like Sandusky on national TV would be an understatement—few thought his client stands a chance of getting off in the end.

“It’s going to be a very tough case," says Johnson.

“I would expect the overwhelming number of victims, most of whom the grand jury found credible, will survive this," said Linda Fairstein, the veteran sex-crimes prosecutor.

Edward Hayes, one of New York’s best-known defense attorneys, puts it more bluntly. Describing the case against Sandusky on Tuesday afternoon, he said simply, “This guy’s dead as a doornail.”

In the end, the outcome may lie somewhere in between.

Amendola remains adamant that Sandusky will prove his innocence—"This is the biggest game of his life," he said of his client—but many believe that the preliminary hearing waiver suggests a plea deal is already in the works.

"It's the only thing that makes sense," says Wes Oliver, a local law professor.