After serving as a juror on the murder trial of Mirinda Boob and Ronald Heichel last year, State College resident Fran Gray has experience — but not advice — to share with those summoned to jury selection in the Jerry Sandusky case.
"I guarantee they're going to get more advice than they know what to do with," he said. "The judges are going to read them the riot act about not pre-judging and, whatever you know or think you know, it doesn't matter. It doesn't count."
The process to select the jury that will determine the outcome of the highest-profile case in Centre County history is scheduled to begin at 8 a.m. at the courthouse in Bellefonte on Tuesday.
Sandusky, a former Penn State football assistant coach, faces 52 counts for allegedly abusing boys he met through The Second Mile, a nonprofit he founded for atrisk children. He maintains his innocence.
The prosecution had asked for an out-of-county jury, arguing that finding an impartial one in Centre County could be difficult, due to the extensive media coverage and residents' connections to Penn State. Sandusky took the stand at the time to say that he preferred standing trial before a local jury.
Senior Judge John Cleland denied the prosecution's motion, ruling in favor of "at least making an effort" to find an in-county jury. But he did leave open the possibility of choosing an outside jury.
"It is certainly obvious, however, that jury selection will present its challenges and if, after a reasonable attempt it is apparent that a jury cannot be selected within a reasonable time, then I will reconsider this ruling," the order states.
A local jury
The summons Gray received last spring for the Boob and Heichel trial, high-profile in its own right, was his first. They were charged with first- and third-degree murder, criminal conspiracy to commit homicide and conspiracy to commit aggravated assault in the 2009 death of Boob’s husband, Sam. After a weeklong trial, they were convicted of all charges. In that case, the jury wasn’t sequestered.
Gray said he's not originally from the area so he was "clueless" about the case. But, he said, he doesn't know how officials will find such jurors to serve in Sandusky's case.
"It was very hard to remain ignorant of everything," he said. "You're not allowed to watch the news, you're not allowed to read the newspaper. When it's happening, it's front-page news and it's everywhere. And my kids were following it and would want to ask me questions."
That trial was reported mainly in local media. The Sandusky case, on the other hand, has drawn national attention from the beginning.
Criminal defense attorney Edward Blanarik Jr., who represented Mirinda Boob last year, said officials will know early whether they can seat a jury here.
"You'll have a pretty good indication in the first couple of hours, the first half-day," he said.
Matt McClenahen, also a criminal defense attorney, said jury selection is a "key component" of any trial, and that an attorney can win or lose a case based on jury selection.
"You want people who you think can be open-minded and listen to all of the evidence," he said. "The truth is that it is possible to make a false allegation. You need people who understand that."
Both attorneys said Sandusky's positive reputation locally before his arrest may be an advantage for the defense.
"You're damned if you do and damned if you don't," McClenahen said. "The closer you get geographically to Beaver Stadium, the more bitter people are. But at the same time, Jerry Sandusky did a lot of good things for this community, at least before all of this happened, and I suspect the defense is hoping to get people who have had positive experiences, directly or indirectly, vis-à-vis Sandusky."
A measure of how important jury selection is to the defense came out in a motion by Sandusky's attorney, Joe Amendola, to postpone the case.
According to the judge's ruling, one of the reasons the defense gave for seeking a delay in jury selection was that experts, including a jury consultant, would not be available next week. Cleland denied the motion Wednesday. The defense has appealed Thursday to the Superior Court for a delay, where it was denied, and to the state Supreme Court on Friday.
Selecting the jury
Everything about the Sandusky trial looks to be more intense than a typical case, from questioning of potential jurors one by one, to longer jury selection and trial times. Jury selection could take several days, with opening statements not to begin before June 11, according to court documents. The trial could take several weeks and the courtroom is reserved for the trial through the end of June.
Gray was part of the county's typical summons of 500 people to find enough to serve on juries for two months of trials. For the Sandusky trial, Jury Commissioner Hope Miller said her office summoned 600 people.
"This time of year you have a lot of people going on vacation, you have a lot of students who have left the area for the summer," she said of the increase.
Miller said the process for finding potential jurors in the Sandusky case has been the same one used at other trials.
"It's the same questionnaire we send out all the time, which saves a lot of time at selection," she said. "Then they can delve into more personal things."
A computer generates the random list of potential jurors to be summoned, based on driver's license and voter registration information.
The mailed questionnaire asks for a person's family and job information, if the person has served on a jury in the past three years and if jury duty will cause a hardship.
A list of 16 additional questions ask whether potential jurors have been a victim of or eyewitness to a crime, and some of their beliefs, such as if they would be more or less likely to believe the testimony of a police officer because of his or her job, and if they would have a problem following the court’s instruction that a defendant is innocent "unless and until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt."
Miller said 211 people returned the questionnaires for the Sandusky jury selection, right in the middle of the 175 to 265 people who typically do so.
Once the summonses are sent, Miller's office deals with a "whole realm of issues" from people who call to claim a hardship — disability, scheduled vacation, work commitments and financial problems, to name a few. Jurors get $9 per day the first three days and $25 per day thereafter, plus 17 cents per mile of travel to and from the courthouse.
"I don't think we ever want to put people at a hardship," she said. "But, at the same time, we can't excuse everyone. It is your responsibility as a citizen, and our court process stops right here if we can't have juries selected."
Ensuring a fair trial
Gray tried to be excused from the Boob trial because he had prepaid for a turkey hunting trip with his son in early April. He said Judge Pamela A. Ruest, who presided over the case, told him the trial would finish by then, which it did.
"I had recently had heart surgery, so I was off work anyway," he said. "It didn't really interfere with anything for me."
Whether jurors will face a hardship while serving will be one of the big considerations in whether Cleland decides to sequester the Sandusky jury, which means they would stay in a hotel, away from media and other discussions of the case.
President Judge Thomas King Kistler said, as cases become higher in profile, courts also may use sequestering to keep a jury safe.
Each county proceeds differently, and Centre County "almost never" sequesters, Kistler said. The last time the court did so in his 15-year tenure was in 2000, when Thomas Huddleston, of Philipsburg, was on trial for, and convicted of, second-degree murder and other charges for being an accomplice in the 1999 death of Oscar David Camargo.
Officials brought in a jury from Butler County, near the Ohio border, because they worried about local juror "pollution" due to early media reports. Heath Quick pleaded guilty to shooting Camargo two months before Huddleston's trial.
Kistler said that jury was sequestered because officials couldn't expect members to commute back and forth every day.
"We just owed it to them if we're going to disrupt their lives," he said. "There have been other sequestered juries. It's a comfort to the court and it's a comfort to the parties to know that we've controlled the juries. But it's a disruption for the jurors and we have to balance that."
The length of the trial, making sure the jury is not influenced by media reports and outside discussion, and the level of disruption all will likely factor into Cleland’s decision on whether to sequester Sandusky’s jury, which he has said would happen closer to the trial’s start.
"Overall, we need to make sure that Mr. Sandusky gets a fair trial and his jury is able to focus on the evidence, and make a decision based on the evidence, and that they're not worried about other stuff," Kistler said. CDT Executive Editor Chip Minemyer contributed to this report. Jessica VanderKolk can be reached at 235-3910. Jessica VanderKolk can be reached at 235-3910. Follow her on Twitter @jVanReporter