Jerry Sandusky Trial: The Defense’s Risky Psych Defense

Lawyers for the ex-coach may call a psychologist to testify that their client has a personality disorder.

Patrick Smith / Getty Images

Defending Jerry Sandusky, the former Penn State coach accused of 52 counts of sexual abuse against young boys, can’t be an easy job. So it’s no surprise that his lawyers have come up with a strategy that’s already being mocked by opposing counsel. Is Sandusky a pedophile—or an undiagnosed victim of histrionic personality disorder?

In one of several handwritten letters from Sandusky to one of the young men now accusing him of sexual abuse—missives the witness described to the jury as “creepy love letters”—the former Penn State defensive coordinator wrote, “I have many Forrest Gump qualities. As you can imagine I cried at that movie.”

As the prosecution seems ready to rest its case and turn the floor over to defense attorney Joe Amendola, it seems that the defense’s strategy will be to expand on Sandusky’s vision of himself as someone who is developmentally different—but not criminal. Amendola said as much during his opening statement to the jury last week. “There are no victims in this case. Victims only come about when you 12 people decide there are victims. Mr. Sandusky has always said he is innocent.”

Late Friday afternoon, as the trial was in recess, Centre County Court Judge John Cleland issued an unusual ruling that helped clear the way for this tactic, allowing Amendola and his team to call an expert witness to testify about histrionic personality disorder, or HPD, as it’s known. It is rare in Pennsylvania for expert testimony to come into a trial, because the commonwealth believes it encroaches upon the role of a jury, that they are better off using their common sense to decide a case. However, expert witnesses are approved if they are to present information not commonly known to the population. It’s a safe bet that the Sandusky jury hasn’t got a clue about HPD.

In its motion requesting permission to present an expert psychologist, Sandusky’s team had written, “The goal of a person suffering from this disorder in writing those letters would not necessarily be to groom or sexually consummate a relationship in a criminal manner.“

The American Psychiatric Association says those suffering from the disorder are characterized by a pattern of excessive emotionality and attention-seeking, including an excessive need for approval and inappropriately seductive behavior. They are described as enthusiastic and flirtatious; they crave stimulation and may exhibit sexually provocative behavior. They often put themselves in risky situations and fail to see their own personal situation realistically. While some of those descriptions may apply to Jerry Sandusky, not helpful to his case is that HPD is most often diagnosed in women.

(The defense motion did not mention that the American Psychiatric Association’s website reports that HPD is currently in the process of being eliminated as a diagnosis.)

Lawyers close to the case say the defense strategy could easily backfire, because there is an important condition attached. The judge declared that if the defense puts its expert on the stand, it will also have to make Sandusky available for psychological evaluation by an expert for the prosecution. (There are reports that the prosecution’s evaluation took place on Sunday, and so would not delay the trial.)

Several legal experts told The Daily Beast the prosecution’s mental-health examiner might very well get on the stand and tell the jury they were unable to diagnose HPD but, instead, discovered a pedophilic disorder. Attorney Slade McLaughlin, who represents Victim No. 1, the accuser whose allegations first sparked this Sandusky investigation, says it’s a risky tactic.

“The defense has so few cards to play here that they are now stooping to claiming a mental disorder as some justification for their client’s bizarre behavior,” McLaughlin said. “In my opinion, Sandusky does have a psychological disorder—one that undoubtedly will be uncovered by the attorney general’s examining psychiatrist: pedophilia.” McLaughlin, whose 18-year-old client appeared to be among the most physically and emotionally crippled, borders on anger when he talks about what his client has allegedly been through.

“How is it that Jerry Sandusky managed to reach the age of 68 with no diagnoses of any psychological disorder, but now that he’s accused of molesting little boys, he’s suddenly diagnosed, according to his attorneys, with a histrionic personality? What a joke.”

Attorney Thomas Kline, who represents accuser No. 5, also told The Daily Beast the HPD defense is dangerous. But at this stage of the trial, after the shocking testimony of eight alleged victims and the eyewitness account of sexual abuse on a young boy as described by Penn State assistant coach Michael McQueary, Sandusky’s team has little to lose allowing the government to examine him.

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“Amendola will get a report from the prosecution and can decide whether to put on his expert,” Kline explained. “The prosecution will only be allowed a rebuttal witness if and when the defense puts on their expert. So Amendola gets to see what the prosecution has in rebuttal, and then can decide. It costs the defense nothing to play out this strategy,” says Kline.

Because of a pending gag order on the trial attorneys, the media, and the public will likely find out whether Amendola decides to present his psychological expert at the last moment.

The most intriguing questions throughout the trial, of course, had to do to whether the defense will call either the defendant himself or his wife, Dottie Sandusky. A clue came during Amendola’s opening statement.

For an adult to take a shower with a youngster, he told the jury, “may sound odd. But in Jerry Sandusky’s world—and you’ll hear from him—it was routine to work out and take a shower and he did that with some of these kids. But,” he said with deliberately emphasis, “taking a shower is not a crime.” When Amendola made that statement on the first day of trial, eyebrows were immediately raised. He had just promised the jury they would hear from the defendant. Will he follow through?

Nothing was mentioned in the opening statements about testimony from Dottie Sandusky, but she was led out of the courtroom on that first day after the judge announced that any potential witnesses must leave the courtroom. At first, no one moved. But after a whispered sidebar conference, a uniformed bailiff appeared to escort Mrs. Sandusky and a young male out of the room.

The jury must surely wonder what Mrs. Sandusky knew, didn’t know—or refused to see.

“It always happened at night,” alleged victim No. 1 told the jury of his abuse. “His wife was always upstairs.” This witness, like all the other young men who were asked, said Dottie Sandusky never came downstairs to what was described as a sort of boy-cave. It was large basement outfitted with an air hockey and pool table, a dart board, television, a waterbed, and lots of other boy-oriented games.

Another accuser told the court that when he traveled to the Outback Bowl with Mr. and Mrs. Sandusky in 1999, Dottie walked into their shared hotel room just as the coach was making a forceful sexual move on him as he tried to get into the shower. “She called out her husband’s name and said, ‘What are you doing in there?’” The man, now 28, told the court he quickly jumped in the shower and didn’t hear the rest of the conversation.

The fourth accuser to appear said he had rebuffed Sandusky’s sexual advances so many times that he stopped calling to take the young boy to Penn State football games. “I was confused and upset by it,” he told the prosecutor. “So my mom called Dottie about it. Then I got tickets to go to the games again. I got tickets but he didn’t come to pick me up anymore.” It was a further indication that Dottie Sandusky knew of her husband’s young male companions and that the relationships didn’t always go smoothly.

The last accuser to take the stand, an 18-year-old who appeared wearing an eyepatch over a recent injury, looked like a wounded bird as he took the stand. “His wife was at home but she was always upstairs,” he said. Recounting the time the alleged sexual activity had allegedly escalated to violent anal sex, he was asked, “You said you screamed?” He answered meekly, “Yes.”

Was Mrs. Sandusky home?” he was asked.

The young man said, “Yes, [but] I think the basement is soundproof.”

And of all the Sandusky home photographs the prosecutor displayed on the court’s big screen which featured the coach with his arms around handsome young boys between the ages of about 10 to 14, not one photograph included Dottie Sandusky.

During the commonwealth’s case, defense attorney Amendola tried repeatedly to paint the accusers as being motivated by money. While some admitted they had lawyers, each testified they had had no discussions about filing a civil suit for damages after the criminal trial. Amendola’s other most frequent tactic was to attempt to discredit the young accusers by pointing out conflicts in their Grand Jury testimony. That strategy also seemed to fall flat, as most discrepancies were over dates or the number of overnight visits to the Sandusky home.

There has been rampant speculation (with no confirmation) that both Sanduskys will testify. Attorney McLaughlin calls it a must-do “Hail Mary pass” for a doomed case. “There are rumblings about her possibly being indicted as an accomplice to some of the assaults,” McLaughlin said. “If I was advising Dottie, I would advise her not to testify because of the possibility that her own testimony might incriminate her, and subject her to prosecution.”

No witness list has been released, so whatever the rumor du jour about defense strategy, it is uninformed conjecture at this point. In addition to possibly calling the psychologist to testify about HPD, the defense may try to focus on discrepancies in various police reports. They may call young men who were involved with Sandusky’s Second Mile charity who have only positive things to say about the defendant. Amendola may also have found some former Penn State alumni to come to Sandusky’s defense, but given the atmosphere in this proud community, that seems unlikely.

In the end, it may be that Jerry and Dottie Sandusky are the only cards in the defense team’s deck.