The Sandusky Train Wreck


I am a sucker for the presumption of innocence. I believe in it. I earn my living standing behind it.  For reasons all my own I am drawn to those in need of it. Show me a person accused of a crime, and I have new friend.

So I was prepared to write a piece about the raw deal Jerry Sandusky is getting.  I was going to write a piece defending Sandusky’s lawyer, Joseph Amendola. But the more I watch the unfolding defense of the Penn State football coach, the more distracted I get. A powerful train is bearing down on Sandusky. It looks to me as though his lawyers are doing the best they can to make sure their man is tied tightly to the tracks. Expect a slaughter unless things change soon.

Sandusky is accused of sexually assaulting a host of young boys. The grand jury report outlining these offenses has been leaked to the press. Penn State acted quickly to distance itself from the accusations, abruptly firing long-time coach Joe Paterno and the university’s president. The new administration can’t apologize enough.  Listening to all this chest-thumping made me wonder whether there is a law school on the campus. The university has transformed the allegations of the complaining witnesses into the holy grail of victimhood. Forgotten is the presumption of innocence and lawful process.

Sandusky is in great jeopardy in criminal court.  At 67, he’s looking at a life sentence whether he pleads guilty or goes to trial. He ought to be gearing up for the fight. His lawyers ought to be researching the psychology of the crowd, reminding people of the rush to judgment we now know as McMartin School, wondering aloud why one of Sandusky’s principal accusers, Mike McQueary, sat on his damning observations for years, and now appears in court testifying about what he “believes” he saw. Sandusky needs a bare-knuckled defense.

What we’ve seen thus far is a circus.

Why did his lawyer let him appear on the air with Bob Costas? Why the interview with The New York Times? Folks keep asking as though Amendola were a rookie. I remind people of a truth old lawyers know: client control is always assumed, but sometimes you can’t tell a client what to do. Put another way: You can lead a client to the courthouse, but you can’t always make him think. I’ve been assuming Sandusky insisted on talking to the press.

Besides, what had Sandusky to lose speaking out? The world condemned him in a week’s time. The truth of the allegations is assumed and the charges are wielded with the self-righteous fury of a lynch mob. Pushing back against this moral mania is necessary.

Trying a case in the papers is a challenge. It’s a battle of wits. David has but verbal stones to cast at Goliath. The camera catches every move, every syllable. Aim well, or suffer. Amendola learned the hard way about how quickly things can go wrong in the court of public opinion when he told those who think Sandusky abused children to call 1-800-REALITY. It sounded good. Tough. In your face. Then a reporter called the number. It’s a male gay sex line. Not exactly a defense theme with traction in this case. It pays to check the route before taking your mouth out for a walk. Ouch.

Then I saw a videotape of one of the newest lawyers on Sandusky’s team, Karl Rominger.  Was the coach observed in the shower with young boys? Rominger told ABC News in a nationally televised interview that Sandusky was perhaps teaching these disadvantaged waifs such basic life skills as how to apply soap. This is not a defense. The remarks give a whole new meaning to the term “camera stupid.”

If there is a defense theme guiding the defense, Sandusky’s defenders have done an excellent job thus far of hiding it from public view. Perhaps the defense reasons that with enough tomfoolery, the entire nation will be so tainted that a fair and impartial jury will never be found. Is it the defense’s goal to make sure all 300 million of us form the worst possible impression of Sandusky and the defense before the first juror is selected?

There may be time to right the course in this case.  It will take more than a make-up artist to touch up the defense. It may be time for a new cast. The next team should save its thunder for the courtroom. The battle for public opinion has already been lost.

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