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Jerry Sandusky trial: Accusers pose challenge to defense

June 12, 2012|By Michael Muskal

As the child sex-abuse trial of former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky moves into its second day of evidence, the defense on Tuesday will continue to confront a classic problem: How to impeach a witness seen by many as sympathetic.

Sandusky, 68, faces 52 criminal counts of abusing 10 boys over 15 years. The heart of the trial began Monday with opening statements and the first witness, now 28.

The first of eight accusers expected to testify, the witness described in graphic detail his abuse in showers and saunas as a teenager. He told of “creepy love letters” that he had received from Sandusky, who gave him gifts and took him to football games. And, he said, Sandusky tried to force him to have a variety of inappropriate sexual contacts going back to 1997.

When defense lawyer Joe Amendola got a chance to cross-examine the witness, he asked the man why he didn't try to end the relationship if it made him uncomfortable.

"I kind of looked at Jerry as a father figure because I didn't have anybody else there. He was nice to me, other than those instances," the witness said, according to media reports from the courtroom in Bellefonte, Pa. "Also, I feel cool because besides that part, I'm hanging out with players all the time. I don't want to lose somebody actually paying attention to me."

Then why not go to authorities? The witness said he still feels guilty he didn’t. “I feel if I just had said something back then, they wouldn't have had this happen to him,” he said of the other accusers. “I feel responsible for what happened to other victims.”

 “I thought I was the only person,” the witness said later. “I just came to terms with that and just wanted to go away.”

The prosecution will continue to present witnesses beyond the accusers, including at least one who is expected to testify that he saw Sandusky with a naked boy in the locker room showers at Penn State. But the heart of the prosecution case will be the testimony of the accusers.

That means the defense's main job will be undermining the credibility of the boys, now adults, without sparking a backlash from jurors.

In his opening statement, defense attorney Amendola compared his task to climbing Mt. Everest. The prosecution has had three years to put together its case, he said, but Sandusky wasn't charged until November. During the pretrial phase, the defense repeatedly, and unsuccessfully, sought to delay the start of the trial, arguing that it needed more time to study the material and to get needed experts.

The defense lawyer tried to plant a seed of doubt about the witnesses, arguing that they should be referred to as accusers and not as victims. At least six of Sandusky's accusers have retained attorneys to represent them in threatened civil lawsuits, Amendola said.

“We believe the evidence will show at least one of these young men had an attorney before they even talked to the attorney general in this case,” Amendola said, according to media reports from the courtroom. “We believe these young men have financial incentives.”

Amendola sought to explain away the showering, saying that it was not criminal and just part of Sandusky's upbringing in the small Pennsylvania town of Washington. Sandusky was the only child of a couple who operated a youth center.

“That's where Jerry grew up, among all the kids of the area, many of whom had difficult childhoods,” Amendola said. That's where Sandusky's ease with sharing a shower originated, he said. “They played together. They took showers together.”

As an adult, Sandusky's heart opened to troubled children, Amendola told the jurors, about half of whom have some tie to Penn State, whether as an employee or just an avid football fan.

That caring led Sandusky to start the Second Mile, a charity that prosecutors said the former coach used to find boys that he later abused. In his opening statement, prosecutor Joseph McGettigan III called Sandusky a “predatory pedophile” who took advantage of at-risk youth and groomed them with gifts.

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michael.muskal@latimes.com

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