As a former assistant district attorney and current criminal defense lawyer, my husband, Bill Stradley is known for working on difficult trial cases that other attorneys do not have experience handling. Recently, he was asked by Ian Simpson of Reuters to comment on the Jerry Sandusky child sexual assault case. This Q&A format may help expand on his thoughts and help further understanding of the situation.
Q: In the article, you were quoted as saying “This is going to be a difficult trial. It’s going to be brutal.” Can you explain further?
A-Bill Stradley: The difficulty of most criminal matters relating to sexual crimes against children is that usually there are no third-party witnesses. In those circumstances, it can be extremely difficult to distinguish true reports of sexual abuse versus false accusations. Sometimes when there is a witness, the witness isn’t clear about what they saw or perhaps has a reason to lie, for example with a contentious child custody dispute or wanting to receive financial gain. (Yes, that is a sick thing to allege without basis, but it happens).
Often, these cases result in a not guilty verdict due to obvious reasonable doubt.
To have multiple witnesses to a sexual assault of a child is extremely unusual, and more unusual for no action taken against the assailant for many years. To have police officer witnesses to what amounts to a confession? How could this happen?
Evil exists. Why people see evil and don’t stop it is one of those all time questions. Some try to explain it with science.
It’s enraging to read the Sandusky grand jury investigation [pdf], or the summary of the investigation. If all is taken as true, it becomes difficult to think that in order to protect the reputation of a school and a sports program, most of the parties involved became willfully ignorant of such crimes. Don’t know if that says more about the excesses of sports or the worst of human nature.
Or perhaps it suggests that the facts are more muddy than the grand jury investigation suggests. Already, there have been conflicting public reports about what the graduate assistant witnessed.
As bad as the grand jury investigation document is, the trial will be much worse. It is hard on the accusers. It’s difficult to find impartial jurors to even impanel a jury, and these cases are emotionally difficult on those jurors. The details by the nature of the crime will be graphic.
Some times plea deals happen to avoid putting the accusers through the difficulty and emotion of a trial. However, with so many accusers and Sandusky’s age, it is possible there’s no plea deal that could be acceptable to both sides.
Q: In the article, you talked some about merging the cases. Please explain more about this.
In Texas, in a case involving multiple accusers, the defense may choose to try each case separately. In doing so, only the evidence of that one case gets in front of the jury. The defense counsel then needs to take care not to ask questions that would allow for the prosecution to argue to the judge that the defense has “opened the door” for the other offenses to come into evidence. The down side to that approach is 1. having to defense multiple trials; 2. if found guilty, the defendant having to face sentences that are stacked on top of each other instead of running concurrent.
The positive side of doing that is if there is a not guilty verdict, depending on the evidence, it can lead to a favorable plea deal or the dropping of all the other charges. In addition, it is easier for jurors to find reasonable doubt involving one incident than if many people are saying the same thing.
Strategically, given the publicity in this case, many of the benefits of trying each case separately go away because it would likely be impossible for the defense to find jurors that do not know about the multiple accusations against Sandusky.
Q: Were you surprised that Sandusky’s lawyer waived his right to a preliminary hearing?
It depends on what Sandusky’s lawyer is attempting to accomplish. If he is truly preparing to try this case, a preliminary hearing could have been very helpful to know what the specifics of the testimony were going to be and how good the witnesses would be for the prosecution. The defense counsel in this circumstance would not need to do any cross-examination.
If a plea deal were being contemplated, then all that the preliminary hearing would do would be to inflame the public and create unnecessary emotional hardship for the accusers. Even so, Sandusky can’t make a plea deal with himself. If the prosecutors do not want to make any reasonable deal, Sandusky’s lawyer will have to go to trial without the benefit of the information from the preliminary hearing.
Theoretically, you might want to avoid the hearing so as not to taint the potential jury pool further, but as it is, it may be difficult to find people who haven’t made their minds up about this matter.
Also something to consider is potential civil cases against non-Sandusky defendants, like the university. The accusers may wish to obtain a quick plea that unequivocally gets Sandusky to admit guilt and his actions, and then use Sandusky’s cooperating statements to find civil liability against others.
Even when people are guilty of crimes of this nature, it is often difficult for them to admit their guilt to anyone. Sometimes they would rather have a jury convict them of the offense and risk maximum sentences than to admit to their families and the world what they have done by pleading guilty.
Q: What complications arise from Sandusky’s phone interview with Bob Costas?
Typically, attorneys do not want their clients to speak to anyone, even if the defendant is actually innocent and wants to publicly maintain their innocence. Few good things come from that.
In high media attention cases, sometimes attorneys can make the strategic decision to have the defendant make a statement in order to get their side of the story public to help minimize damage to the jury pool. Sometimes the defendant sounds sympathetic and truly innocent in their statement. In addition, it may allow the defendant’s side of the story to be known without the well-known dangers of presenting the defendant as a witness.
In the interview, Sandusky admits to showering with children and engaging in horseplay. Including the time witnessed by the graduate assistant. This means at time of trial, his defense attorney can’t maintain that the event never happened. Hard for a defense counsel to claim that showering with unrelated children was completely innocent, or that Sandusky in the interview sounds sympathetic at all.
Q: The Sandusky matter also involves university personnel who failed to report the injury to children. Some people think not enough of the people who knew of the abuse were charged. What are your thoughts on that?
A: Failure to report child abuse cases can be complex. What did the witnesses know and when did they know it and did they do enough. Getting accurate information on that becomes more difficult the more highly charged the subject matter and the more publicized the case.
For example, I recently defended a failure to report child abuse case involving a school administrator. The case involved an assault that was filmed on video and widely distributed on TV and social media, so there was a great deal of public pressure to prosecute.
It turned out that once the true facts came out, a jury decided to find the defendant not guilty after deliberating for about 10 minutes. The facts demonstrated conclusively that the defendant did not know and shouldn’t have known the nature of the assault, tried to do further investigation in a timely way, and had no reason to go to the police with the information he knew at the time.
I do not think that case applies to the Sandusky matter given what’s contained in public reports. What I do know from my dealings with the criminal justice system and the law is that I am highly distrustful of public information about legal matters, especially involving emotionally charged, high publicity cases.
It is cases like this that challenge people’s feelings about “Innocent until proven guilty” abstractions when faced with the reality of terrible allegations.
I’d like to thank Bill for helping me put this together. It’s difficult sometimes explaining legal things in a way that is clear but also accurate, and I like when I am able to help with that. If any media members wish to get additional questions answered on this topic, please visit Stradley Law’s contact page and ask for Bill.