Jerry Sandusky Should Plead Guilty This Minute
The ex-Penn State coach’s sexual abuse trial needs to end right now.
Jeff Swensen/Getty Images.
The prosecution will soon wrap up its case at Jerry Sandusky’s trial. Thus far, eight different young men have taken the stand and testified that the former Penn State football coach abused them. Sandusky’s attorney Joe Amendola, meanwhile, hasn’t offered anything convincing in his client’s defense. I know we are supposed to believe in the presumption of innocence and wait for the full defense to have its say. This time, I don’t care. Sandusky should end this pathetic travesty right now—by pleading guilty.
He won’t, of course. This is the rare case in which the incentives to plead don’t line up. Usually, when a defendant appears so obviously guilty he plea bargains before trial, to avoid paying the big penalty of a longer sentence after the verdict. The whole system depends on that trade-off—that’s why more than 95 percent of criminal cases never make it to trial. But the plea discussions in Sandusky’s case ran into a wall: his old age. Given the 52 criminal counts the 68-year-old Sandusky faces, and the lurid tales of child sexual abuse and exploitation that were plastered all over the news when the story broke, any deal would have meant that Sandusky would have had to spend the rest of his life in prison. So why plead?
The only reason he should plead—and really the only thing that matters—is that the testimony at trial has shown the man to be clearly (and monstrously) guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. The victims have been painfully specific and clear in recounting their memories. There are 10 boys, and they were molested and raped over 15 years. The defense’s efforts to undermine them—most notably, the accusation that they’re accusing Sandusky in order to make money—have been feeble and unsavory. Why did the victims hire civil attorneys to represent them? To recover, in the one way the law allows, from the harm they allege they suffered. Why didn’t they come forward earlier? Sandusky was the respected and beloved coach with a “heart of gold,” as a school counselor who refused to believe one boy’s claims told him. "So they didn't believe me," he said.
Another victim explained how Sandusky was a master of manipulation, doling out gifts and privileges like trips to the sidelines during games and introductions to players. “This was something good happening to me,” this witness said. “I never had a father figure around. I was liking everything that I was getting. … Other kids were jealous at the time.” Some of the victims have expressed horror that they didn’t turn on this man, didn’t save themselves at the time. But that is the classic tale of child sexual abuse. Powerful adults prey on the most vulnerable children, trapping them into keeping a shameful secret. Sandusky also apparently resorted to threats. “He told me that if I ever told anyone that I'd never see my family again,” yet another accuser testified. Later, Sandusky said he was sorry. “He told me he didn't mean it and that he loved me.” He was, it seems clear, a master of manipulation.
Sandusky’s only real hope at trial was that Mike McQueary, the former Penn State quarterback who allegedly saw Sandusky raping a boy in a shower on campus in 2001, would stumble on the stand. He didn’t. McQueary has taken a public beating because he didn’t rescue that child in the moment, or go to the police when the higher-ups at Penn State failed to act. He expressed regret for that at the trial. But he told his story convincingly, and his father backed him up, also convincingly.
And as Dan Wetzel of Yahoo Sports points out, it now looks like “McQueary did more than he was credited for when the story broke last fall.” Then, Penn State president Graham Spanier, vice president Gary Schultz, and athletic director Tim Curley said McQueary wasn’t detailed or clear about what he’d seen, and that’s why they didn’t take action against Sandusky. All three officials have lost their jobs, and Curley and Schultz are facing charges of perjury and failing to report a crime. Because of that probe, emails have leaked to NBC that reportedly show that McQueary did clearly report what he’d seen, and that Schultz and Spanier decided not to go to the police in order to be “humane” toward Sandusky. A Pittsburgh TV station, meanwhile, reports that Schultz “kept a secret file with allegations regarding Sandusky and sex abuse.”
In the harsh light of the trial and of hindsight, the idea that Sandusky got away with exploiting and harming child after child is very hard to understand. How could the Penn State officials—including the late, legendary coach Joe Paterno—have failed to stop Sandusky? Maybe they couldn’t bear to absorb what McQueary was telling them, maybe they couldn’t bear to think that this coach they’d known for so long was capable of such terrible acts. Maybe they froze. If any good can come out of this spectacle of a trial, it will be our increased awareness about why sexually abused children rarely come forward, and how adults, even well meaning ones, can fail them so terribly. But what matters right now is for Jerry Sandusky to admit to the wrongs the evidence unalterably shows he committed. He owes his victims much more. But this, at least, he could give them.
Emily Bazelon is a Slate senior editor and writes about law, family, and kids. Her forthcoming book, Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Empathy and Character. Find her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Facebook or Twitter.