June 5, 2012 / 12:11 PM / 5 years ago

First jurors picked in Sandusky sex abuse trial

<p>Former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky arrives for jury selection in his child sex abuse trial in State College, Pennsylvania June 5, 2012. REUTERS/Pat Little</p>

BELLEFONTE, Pennsylvania (Reuters) - A retired bus driver, a student, a high school teacher, an engineer and a Wal-Mart employee were among nine jurors picked on Tuesday in the child sex abuse trial of former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, a case that shook the university and focused attention on sexual predation in the United States.

Sandusky faces 52 counts of molesting 10 boys over a 15-year period and has pleaded not guilty. Prosecutors have accused him of meeting the boys through a charity he founded, and have claimed that some of the assaults occurred at Penn State facilities.

A jury of 12 regulars and four alternates will be selected. The nine jurors chosen on the first day of a process include five men and four women, among them a retired Penn State professor.

The quick pace of jury selection indicates that Judge John Cleland is determined to keep the trial moving. Experts had predicted a prolonged process for selecting a jury from a pool of some 220 members of a small, close-knit community.

“We are working very hard and patiently to get this done. I just want to reassure you that this process is working and thank you,” Cleland said.

One of the jurors is a woman who said she has had contact with the father of a key prosecution witness - former graduate assistant coach Mike McQueary. The juror’s husband worked as a doctor at a medical practice overseen by McQueary’s father, John McQueary.

McQueary’s eye witness account of Sandusky allegedly raping a boy in a shower in a Penn State locker room is one of the most remarkable allegations of the case.

Sandusky’s attorney, Joe Amendola, had moved to strike the woman as a juror, but Judge John Cleland overruled his objection.

Earlier on Tuesday, the courtroom fell silent when Sandusky, 68, and Amendola entered, according to a reporter covering the proceedings, who passes on information to other media.

All press except for one reporter have been banned from jury selection at the Centre County court in Bellefonte, about 10 miles northeast of State College, the site of Pennsylvania State University’s main campus. The case has drawn intense media attention. About two dozen television trucks were lined up outside the courthouse on Tuesday morning in a light drizzle.

The explosive accusations in November 2011 led to the firings of university President Graham Spanier and Joe Paterno, the coach who has won more games than any other in college football history.

Cleland told potential jurors that he would not sequester them once the trial begins, but he advised them not to watch TV reports or to read newspaper stories about the case, or to update Facebook or other social media pages.

The judge said he hoped the trial would begin on Monday, June 11, and that he expected it to last about three weeks.

Cleland did not wear a robe as he walked among the jury pool delivering instructions. Potential jurors, several wearing Penn State jackets or sweatshirts, are predominantly white and middle aged or older. There was just one black and a handful of Asian Americans.

<p>Former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky arrives for jury selection in his child sex abuse trial in State College, Pennsylvania June 5, 2012. REUTERS/Mark Makela</p>

Sandusky laughed along with the prospective jurors as Cleland made a few jokes while welcoming them. But when the judge said, “I need you to keep an open mind because the defendant is charged with the sexual abuse of children,” the retired coach hung his head and did not make eye contact with anyone.

Cleland said that employment at Penn State would not automatically disqualify a juror. Penn State is by far the biggest institution and employer in Centre County, set among hills and farmland in central Pennsylvania.

Experts have said the area’s small-town atmosphere could complicate selecting a jury. Underscoring the web of relationships in the area, all the Centre County judges have recused themselves. Cleland is a juvenile justice expert from McKean County in northwestern Pennsylvania.

FACES 500 YEARS

Prosecutors have accused Sandusky of having physical contact with the boys, known in court documents as Victims 1 to 10, that ranged from tickling and a “soap battle” in Penn State showers to oral and anal sex.

If convicted on all counts, Sandusky could be sentenced to more than 500 years in prison. He is under house arrest with a $250,000 bail.

Sandusky has already laid out a potential defense, saying in an NBC television interview in November that he engaged in horseplay with alleged victims but stopped short of sexual intercourse or penetration.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court rejected a last-ditch appeal for a delay by the defense on Monday. Amendola, Sandusky’s attorney, had argued he needs more time to go through evidence.

The grand jury charges against the retired assistant coach marked a watershed in awareness of child sexual abuse since Sandusky seemed to be an unlikely predator as a children’s champion and well-respected former coach.

As the Sandusky shockwave spread, sex abuse hotlines and lawyers saw an upsurge in calls and emails.

Area residents said they were hoping the trial would help put the Sandusky scandal behind them.

As proceedings began on Tuesday, Penn State issued a statement: “The acts that Jerry Sandusky is accused of committing are horrible and if proven true, deserve punishment.”

The university said it would not comment on the case during the trial.

“We are further hopeful that the legal process will start to bring closure to the alleged victims and families whose lives have been irrevocably impacted and that they can begin the healing process,” the university said, adding that it continues to cooperate with other investigations into the scandal.

The trial in Pennsylvania state court is not the only legal proceeding against Sandusky. Federal authorities are also investigating the matter and have requested information about Sandusky and other top Penn State officials.

Reporting by Ian Simpson; Editing by Dan Burns and Cynthia Osterman

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