Judge: Sandusky case compelling, but not a legal game-changer

cminemye@centredaily.comMay 18, 2013 

— John Cleland was in charge as the deliberate nature of the court system collided with the fast-paced digital age during the Jerry Sandusky trial.

Cleland, a senior judge from McKean County, was appointed to oversee the child sexual abuse case that drew intense interest from a global audience, but which he said is unlikely to change the landscape for the use of electronic devices in Pennsylvania courtrooms.

He called the Sandusky case a unique experience, and acknowledged that judges across the state have since sought his counsel concerning cases before them.

“I’m not sure any of us from Sandusky would have experiences that apply to anything else,” Cleland told a gathering of newspaper editors and reporters Saturday.

The state Supreme Court’s civil procedural rules committee recommended in 2012 an easing of the restrictions on live reporting, including the use of cameras, in Pennsylvania courtrooms.

Teri Henning, president of the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, said the court has not taken up the recommendations.

“I have no idea what the Supreme Court is going to do,” said Cleland, who served on the state Superior Court in 2008 and 2009.

But he added: “The justices are absolutely aware of the experiences of the Sandusky trial.”

Associated Press state news editor Matt Moore joined Cleland and Henning on a panel discussion about the modern courtroom at the PNA’s annual conference.

He said the AP’s New York office saw coverage of the Sandusky trial attracted worldwide interest, popping up in Facebook posts and on blog sites from as far away as Malaysia.

“Even after the trial, it kept on going,” Moore said.

That made the Sandusky case a rare opportunity to better inform a mass audience about the courts, when many people get their sense of how the legal system works from TV drama shows and “Judge Judy diatribes,” Cleland said.

The judge’s dealings with the media during the Sandusky case included these moments:

•  He allowed widespread live electronic reporting, through text messages and Twitter, during the former Penn State assistant coach’s brief preliminary hearing in late 2011.

•  When the trial arrived in June, Cleland said no live reports could be filed from the courtroom or a secondary site across High Street.

•  That was modified for the verdict announcement. After meeting with media representatives, the judge ruled that electronic reports could be sent from the courtroom as soon as court was adjourned. He did so to avoid a stampede of reporters from the second floor of the courthouse.

•  Similar rules were in place for Sandusky’s sentencing last fall. But Cleland said Saturday there were 33 violations of the decorum ruling — communications sent out while court was in session. He chose not to sanction the violators.

•  For a follow-up motions hearing, Cleland banned all electronic devices from the courtroom.

“The problems that occurred could have been eliminated had I anticipated them,” Cleland said. “And the next time, I will.”

Court officials monitored transmissions from the courthouse in Bellefonte during the Sandusky trial and knew who was sending messages and when.

At one point, the judge was caught in his own net. Cleland said he took notes on an iPad during the proceedings, and the text rolled back to a computer in a nearby office for his review.

“One of the officers with the court came up to me and said, ‘Judge, somebody in this courtroom is pumping out a hell of a lot of stuff,’ ” Cleland said. “I had to realize that’s what was happening.”

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