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Posted at 10:10 AM ET, 06/25/2012

Jerry Sandusky trial: the verdict

I wanted the trial to be over, of course, and was thrilled to drive home Saturday morning, navigating the Ridge and Valley Province through central Pennsylvania with its postcard scenery and mountaintop windmills, and rolling back to the District to my ordinary brick house and my family and my thirsty garden. But all weekend I couldn’t shake the trial out of my head, so here are a few more supplementary observations, and I apologize to those who would rather forget this whole tragic episode. Some of this is a restatement of what I typed up in a few crazy minutes on deadline Friday night. I’m told we made 95 percent of the press run, which still matters to a lot of us in the news business.

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The perp walk. (AP Photo/Centre Daily Times, Nabil K. Mark) (Nabil K. Mark - AP)

The Jerry Sandusky trial was civilized and surprisingly efficient. The trial was overseen by an old-school judge named John M. Cleland.

Cordial, precise, Judge Cleland was the firm hand in control of everything. He tolerated no distractions or chatter. He radiated neutrality and probity. The judge was an outsider, brought into Centre County from a county further north. One sensed that he came from a different era as well. One of the reporters suggested that Cleland had a passing resemblance to the actor Harry Morgan in his Colonel Potter role.

At one point during the trial Cleland had to make a ruling on a tricky issue regarding the admission into evidence of some hearsay, an “excited utterance” by a janitor who had seen Sandusky assaulting a boy in a shower. One of the lawyers, arguing his case, told the judge that “the trend” in legal circles was to think in a certain way about such evidentiary questions. Cleland spread his hands wide, smiled broadly, and said, “You’re talking to the wrong court about trends.”

Cleland’s decorum order, handed down before the trial began, declared that there would be no live coverage of the trial, no electronic transmission from his courtroom, and certainly nothing so gauche and potentially disruptive as the tweeting of the verdict. Only when he adjourned, he said, could the reporters transmit to the world the jury’s decision. A violation of this order would risk a finding of contempt of court.

There was a quickening of activity in the courtroom Friday night around 8:30, though we didn’t know yet if there was a verdict. Then came the word on Twitter that Sandusky had been seen leaving his house as a passenger in a county vehicle. That meant a verdict. At 9:30 p.m. came the official word that a verdict had been reached. It takes 20 minutes to get from Sandusky’s home to the courthouse in Bellefonte.

At about 9:50, Dottie Sandusky, four kids and a daughter-in-law emerged from a back room, and took up positions in the front two rows. As they huddled, they looked isolated — their friends who had attended much of the trial hadn’t made it back to the courtroom in time for the verdict, and the doors were now locked. No one could come in or out.

Jerry Sandusky emerged solo from a rear door, looked at the packed courtroom — for a second he seemed slightly bewildered — and immediately disappeared into a different back room. (His movements remain quick and agile, a reminder that, although he’s 68, he’s always been an athlete and fitness buff.) Then he and his lawyers came out and took their usual positions at the defense table. The judge called in the jury.

“I am aware that this is a case of considerable interest to many people,” Cleland said in a typical understatment. “We will tolerate no disruption by any person regardless of what the verdict is. The sheriffs have been directed to arrest anyone who disrupts these proceedings.”

Everything went according to script, which is to say, tradition, legal custom, the rules of criminal procedure, all the way down to the direction by the judge for the accused to stand to hear his fate.

Juror No. 4, the jury foreman, read the verdict. When he said, for the first time, “Guilty,” there was nothing but silence in the room. Forty-five times the foreman said “guilty.” (“The verdict ended the fallacy that this was an area too devoted to Penn State football to render a fair and proper judgment,” Dan Wetzel wrote at Yahoo Sports.)

The prosecution had won the case on the very first day of testimony, when “Victim 4” took the stand and told his story. He was devastatingly credible. He spoke frankly, graphically. It was a brave performance, prefiguring the courage of the other seven victims who came forward later. When Victim 4 was at his most vulnerable as a boy, lacking a father figure, Sandusky had swooped in like a guardian angel, only to reveal himself, gradually, as a fiend. The testimony from Victim 4 was accompanied by “creepy love letters” that Sandusky had written to him. Any reasonable juror could see, from these letters, that Sandusky had an abnormal fixation on the boy not yet in high school. The defense later presented an ineffectual expert witness saying that Sandusky suffers from Histrionic Personality Disorder, but to jury it surely sounded like a junk diagnosis characterized by squishy symptoms (for example, a need for attention and intimacy, which describes almost all human beings), and the judge pointedly told the jury that it didn’t matter in any case since such an alleged disorder was not an excuse for criminal activity.

Victim 4 described how he and Sandusky would never discuss the abuse. It would happen, and then they’d act like it didn’t happen. One time in a hotel room the boy woke to find that he was being groped by Sandusky as Sandusky lay crammed in a narrow space between the bed and the wall. Sandusky didn’t need to be in that space to do what he wanted to do. But it was as if he was hiding from the world, putting his pedophile self in a compartment of sorts, to make it easier to pretend later that the crime wasn’t real, or that it never happened.at all.

Sandusky was acquitted on only three of the counts, charges that were fairly narrowly defined. Reporters and legal experts had expected some kind of “mixed” verdict, but this hardly fit that definition. The jury found that Sandusky molested all the boys, all 10, including the two never identified. It was a thunderous, unambiguous verdict that Sandusky was a predatory pedophile. This jury squashed him like a bug.

Cleland turned to Sandusky and addressed him. To my recollection (I could be mistaken here) Cleland had never addressed Sandusky directly in open court. He had always spoken to Sandusky’s attorneys. His voice suddenly struck me as louder than I’d heard before – a tone of justice being implemented, of the society speaking through this one veteran, gray-haired, bespectacled judge. “Mr. Sandusky, you have been found guilty by a jury of your peers,” he said.

Prosecutor Joe McGettigan asked the judge to vacate the bail; defense attorney Joe Amendola countered that Sandusky should be permitted to stay under house arrest until sentencing, Cleland denied the motion and ordered Sandusky remanded to the custody of the Centre County Sheriff, to be taken to the Centre County Correctional Facility. A young, strapping officer suddenly walked out of a door behind and to the left of the judge. He gently approached Sandusky. I wondered if he would be handcuffed right there, but no, the choreography had been worked out in advance, and perhaps the judge felt, in his old-school way, that there was no need for further dramatics in his courtroom. So Sandusky simply turned away from his lawyers and followed the young sheriff’s deputy out of the room.

The judge declared the trial adjourned. Every reporter hit transmit, except for a few who dashed for the door and down the stairs. (I saw a clip on CNN later in which you could see Sara Ganim, who won the Pulitzer after she broke the Sandusky story, running down the courthouse steps with a cellphone to one ear and her laptop open in her opposite hand – transmitting two ways while running toward the cameras. Kids, don’t try this at home.)

In the courtroom, we suddenly heard it: The cheer. The roar. I had not known that so large a throng had formed during the roughly 90 minutes we’d been in the courtroom anticipating a possible verdict. The sound was unmistakably that of many hundreds of people learning the verdict and cheering with joy. The analogy is impossible to avoid: It was the cheer you hear at a football game when a team scores the winning touchdown.

Outside, no decorum order applied.

The Sandusky trial was, taken on the whole, a triumph of the legal system, even as the many decades of Sandusky’s predation on pre-pubescent boys represented a catastrophic failure of oversight and perception by the institutions surrounding him.

There was one scene I didn’t see, because it happened at the rear of the courthouse: The perp walk. Sandusky emerged handcuffed, flanked by sheriffs. He shook his head slightly as, jeered by onlookers, he walked toward the cameras and was stuffed into a sheriff’s car. Later that night CNN ran the perp walk on a continuous loop.

What happened in the courtroom itself was never seen or heard by the general public. But it was burned, forever, into the memories of those who were there.

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[Shout-outs: The Sandusky trial was covered by some big-name veteran journalists and some young folks who are already skilled and wise and give me great hope for the future of the business. During my time in Bellefonte I benefited from the collegiality of, among many others, Courtney Brennan of KPXI-Pittsburgh (@wpxi_courtney), Kevin Cirilli of PhillyMag (@kevcirilli), Maureen Dowd of The New York Times (@nytimesdowd), Michael Isikoff of NBC (@isikoffnbc), Mark Scolforo of the Associated Press (@houseofbuddy), and Mary Wilson of NPR/Harrisburg (@marywilson).]

By  |  10:10 AM ET, 06/25/2012

 
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