By Mark Scolfordo/The Associated Press
BELLEFONTE, Pa. — A judge said Friday he would decide soon whether to grant former Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky greater freedom — and visits from his young grandchildren — while he awaits trial on child sex-abuse charges, but prosecutors countered that Sandusky’s home is not a safe place for children.
Judge John Cleland set a tentative trial date of May 14 for Sandusky and promised to rule quickly on a number of other issues, including dueling requests for changes to his bail restrictions.
The attorney general’s office wants him confined to the inside of his home while on house arrest awaiting trial, while the defense asked that he be allowed out occasionally to help with the case.
Defense attorney Joe Amendola’s request that Sandusky, 68, be permitted to see his grandchildren drew strenuous opposition from prosecutors.
“This home was not safe for children for 15 years, and it’s not safe for children now,” said state prosecutor Jonelle Eshbach.
Prosecutors noted that one daughter-in-law strongly objects to increased contact between her children and Sandusky.
Amendola presented the court with letters from Sandusky’s children, and notes and drawings from his grandchildren, expressing their desire for increased contact. He also noted a court-appointed guardian for grandchildren who are part of a custody dispute found no reason Sandusky couldn’t see them.
“Comparing with a jail situation, were he in jail, he would have certain rights to have visitors,” Amendola told Cleland.
Outside the courthouse, Sandusky told reporters he wanted to be able to see his grandchildren — who he said wanted to see him, too — and old friends.
“Our home has been open for 27 years to all kinds of people,” Sandusky said.
With his wife, Dottie, at his side, Sandusky said he had associated with thousands of young people over the years, before prosecutors filed sex abuse charge against him in November.
“All of a sudden, because of allegations and perceptions that have been tried to be created of me, now I can’t take our dog on my deck and throw out biscuits to him,” Sandusky said. “Now all of a sudden these people turn on me, when they’ve been in my home with their kids. … It’s difficult for me to understand.”
Prosecutors have also requested an out-of-county jury to hear Sandusky’s case, given the widespread media attention and close ties many people in Centre County have to Penn State.
Cleland asked to hear directly from Sandusky about his attorney’s opposition to that request.
Sandusky, who was sworn in and briefly took the stand, acknowledged that his position on the jury question means he could not appeal a conviction on grounds the local jury was biased.
“I don’t believe that would matter, relative to any place (else) in this state,” he testified.
Sandusky smiled as he answered the judge’s questions, and after the session Amendola told reporters that his client’s body language reflected his personality. Amendola said the charges have devastated Sandusky, however.
“This whole situation, being cast as a pedophile, has crippled him emotionally,” he said.
Cleland could try to pick a local jury and see whether prosecution concerns are valid about the pervasive publicity and local ties to Penn State and The Second Mile, a charity for at-risk children that Sandusky founded, based in nearby State College.
Prosecutors had asked for tougher bail rules, arguing that Sandusky should remain inside because neighbors and school staff have complained about his presence near an elementary school and its playground, located immediately behind his house.
Sassano testified that children had noticed him from their classroom, and that his presence was disrupting school activities.
One neighbor had used a video camera to document Sandusky’s time on his deck, Sassano said.
Under questioning from Amendola, Sassano testified that Sandusky was seen on the video brushing his dog or letting the dog outside to play. Sandusky cannot walk the dog because of his bail restrictions, Amendola said.
Widener University law professor Wes Oliver, who observed the proceeding, predicted Cleland was unlikely to order Sandusky to remain indoors.
“Clearly what the prosecution was doing was trying to appease the community,” said Oliver, who teaches criminal procedure.
He also said Cleland’s back-and-forth with Sandusky signaled a Centre County jury was highly likely.
“Of all the animosity we had seen between the prosecution and the defense, it was very cordial today,” Oliver said. “Clearly the volume of the tension’s been amped down.”
Another issue, Amendola’s request for early disclosure of grand jury transcripts, received little attention in the courtroom, and afterward Sandusky defense lawyer Karl Rominger said it may end up being resolved by the judge who supervised the jury. Rominger said additional pretrial motions by the defense were in the works, and would depend in part on what they learn from the documents that prosecutors are turning over.
Both defense and prosecution said the May 14 trial date may not be realistic, given that pretrial discovery issues remain to be ironed out. Amendola said he believes the case can be heard in two weeks, while prosecutors said a month is more likely.
Sandusky faces 52 criminal counts for alleged sexual misconduct involving boys over 15 years, actions that police and prosecutors say have included violent sexual assault inside the Penn State football team facilities. He has denied the allegations.
The scandal led the Penn State trustees to push out university president Graham Spanier and football coach Joe Paterno, who died last month.
Two Penn State administrators are awaiting trial on charges they lied to a grand jury investigating Sandusky and failed to properly report suspected child abuse. Gary Schultz, a former vice president, and Tim Curley, the athletic director, have both denied the allegations.