A squall of rumors that Jerry Sandusky may be accepting a plea deal calmed Wednesday as the judge presiding over the embattled coach’s court proceedings revealed that a private meeting among the defense, prosecutors and the judge late Tuesday was nothing more than a conference to settle another defense motion to push the trial back.
Saying “no date for trial is ever perfect, but some dates are better than others,” Senior Judge John M. Cleland denied the request, which apparently came as a defense motion filed under seal with the Centre County Court of Common Pleas.
As speculation swirled that Tuesday’s in camera meeting housed possible plea negotiations, sources told The Legal that the lead prosecutor — Senior Deputy Attorney General Joseph E. McGettigan III — would not offer a plea deal that didn’t reflect an effective life sentence for the coach, who turned 68 as his criminal proceedings developed into the most closely watched criminal case in the country.
The decision pushes the trial toward its June 5 start date, when prosecutors and Sandusky’s attorneys will work to tap a dozen men and women to decide the former Penn State defensive coordinator’s fate. Lawyers will likely open to the jury around June 11.
A final pretrial hearing also took place Wednesday in downtown Bellefonte, Pa., in which Sandusky attorney Joseph L. Amendola asked Cleland to decide whether the state’s evidence regarding three of the coach’s alleged victims was sufficient to stand trial, according to news reports.
Amendola told Cleland that he — not a jury — should make that determination.
Sandusky stands accused of abusing 10 boys over a 15-year period, and is facing 52 sex-related charges.
First, according to a report from the Harrisburg Patriot-News , Amendola told the court Wednesday that there were too many questions about the credibility of PSU assistant coach Mike McQueary for his accounts to reach the jury.
McQueary’s eyewitness testimony represents the prosecution’s only evidence of what has been viewed as the single most damning allegation against the ex-coach — that Sandusky raped a boy identified as “Victim 2″ in 2001. Prosecutors revised that date in a court filing earlier this month, prompting the defense to renew questions about McQueary’s credibility. McQueary’s story was made public in November following the release of the first report from the grand jury investigating Sandusky. In that document, however, McQueary was alleged to have witnessed the sexual act in 2002, when he was a graduate assistant at Penn State. Prosecutors have conceded they do not know the identity of Victim 2.
According to the Patriot-News , Amendola also argued Wednesday that, since the Centre County district attorney did not bring charges against Sandusky after looking into the story of Victim 6 in 1998, that should not make it in front of the jury, either.
The final alleged victim whose story Sandusky is looking to keep out of court is Victim 8, another individual whose identity remains unknown. Victim 8′s story, according to the grand jury report, came from an alleged eyewitness account of Sandusky performing oral sex on him. Amendola argued Wednesday that the hearsay statement — which came from a Penn State janitor who cannot testify because he has dementia — should not be aired in court, the Patriot-News reported.
Calling the janitor’s statement an “excited utterance,” Deputy Attorney General Frank Fina argued Wednesday that the out-of-court statement back in 2000 was an exception to the rules regarding hearsay evidence.
The prosecution said it would present enough circumstantial evidence to sustain those allegations related to Victim 8, according to the news report.
Cleland also reportedly reminded Amendola Wednesday that he passed on an opportunity to challenge evidence by waiving his preliminary hearing in December.
The judge did not rule from the bench on the pretrial issues, the newspaper reported, and would therefore likely issue a decision before next Tuesday.
According to Cleland’s four-page memorandum order released Wednesday, Sandusky presented five reasons to the court in support of his motion for continuance. As one issue was shielded by grand jury secrecy, Cleland listed four of the arguments the defense offered in seeking to continue the trial. In a footnote, he said the fifth, protected, reason did not merit a continuance, either.
First, according to Cleland, the motion said a defense jury consultant would not be able to attend the jury selection and that a mental health expert for Sandusky has been unable to prepare for trial because he has not been given access to secret grand jury material. However, Cleland said Amendola has been selecting juries in Centre County for “many years” and did not present any evidence showing his expertise would be “meaningfully supplemented” by such an expert. Cleland dismissed arguments about the mental health expert’s ability to prepare, noting that the release of grand jury material would follow the same schedule for a delayed trial as it would for one starting next week.
Other issues cited by Sandusky’s lawyers: One of their paralegals is having surgery; difficulty reviewing discovery material provided by attorneys for the state (though they have renewed motions for additional discovery into Sandusky’s accusers); and the inability to call two former Penn State administrators to the witness stand. The officials, each facing separate charges, have both invoked their Fifth Amendment rights in Sandusky’s case.
Attorneys for former Athletic Director Tim Curley and former Vice President of Business and Finance Gary Schultz informed Amendola earlier this month that their clients would be pleading the Fifth for the coach’s trial.
But since there was no possibility the witnesses would ever testify, that was no basis to delay the trial, Cleland said.
Curley and Schultz are awaiting their own trials on charges of failure to report child abuse and perjury.
Wednesday’s developments appeared to signal the green light for Sandusky’s trial — a proceeding that is likely to affect those of the two former administrative officials.
“While June 5 does present its problems, on balance and considering all the interests involved — the defendant’s right to a fair trial, the alleged victims’ right [to] their day in court, the commonwealth’s obligation to prosecute promptly, and the public’s expectation that justice will be timely done — no date will necessarily present a better alternative,” Cleland said.