BELLEFONTE, Pennsylvania (Reuters) - The child sex abuse trial of former Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky began on Tuesday with jury selection in a case that shook the university and its football program and focused attention on sexual predation in the United States.
Sandusky faces 52 counts of molesting 10 boys over a 15-year period. Prosecutors allege he met the boys through a charity he founded and some of the assaults occurred at Penn State facilities.
The courtroom fell silent when Sandusky, 68, and his defence team led by attorney Joe Amendola, entered, according to a pool report. All press except for one pool reporter are banned from the jury selection proceedings at the Centre County court in Bellefonte, about 10 miles (16 km) northeast of State College, site of Pennsylvania State University’s main campus.
The case has drawn intense media attention, and about two dozen television trucks were lined up outside the courthouse Tuesday morning in a light drizzle. The explosive accusations in November 2011 forced the firing of university President Graham Spanier and of Joe Paterno, college football’s winningest coach.
Judge John Cleland told the pool of about 220 potential jurors that he would not sequester them once the trial begins, which he said he hoped would be Monday, June 11. He said jurors were not to read newspapers about the case, watch TV reports, nor update their Facebook pages or other social media venues.
“How long will you be here? No one knows,” he said.
Cleland wore no robe as he walked among the jury pool delivering his instructions. Potential jurors, several wearing Penn State jackets or sweatshirts, are predominantly white and middle aged or older; just one African American and a handful of Asian Americans were among the pool at court.
Sandusky laughed along with the prospective jurors as Cleland made a few jokes in 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 close-knit small-town atmosphere could complicate seating 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 north-western Pennsylvania.
Prosecutors allege Sandusky had 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 defence, 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 defence 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 of 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 Anthony Boadle