A young man in his early 20s, wearing a navy blue Penn State T-shirt, told the judge presiding over the Jerry Sandusky case Tuesday he could sit on the jury, weigh the evidence and be fair.
“I could, yeah,” he told Senior Judge John Cleland.
“For sure?” Cleland asked back, while Sandusky sat a few feet away at the end of a table.
“If I had to. My opinions now are not set in stone by any means,” said the student, who is from Penns Valley and also works in one of Penn State’s athletic facilities.
That student was among the nine Centre County residents selected for the jury in Sandusky’s child abuse case, and he is one of several selected jurors with Penn State ties. Those with ties to the university include a retired soil science professor and a teacher at Bellefonte Area High School who has two degrees from Penn State.
Overall, five men and four women were selected on the first day of proceedings, as the judge and the attorneys for the prosecution and defense took turns questioning each juror one by one inside the second-floor chambers of the county’s president judge. Jurors were not identified by name, but rather by their number.
They will seek to seat 16 jurors in all — the primary 12 and four alternates.
The fact they were able to seat more than half from the first pool of 40 prospective jurors in about nine hours seems to signal the prosecution may have been wrong about local residents’ ability to put aside their connection to Penn State and hear the case against one of the university’s most acclaimed sports figures whose reputation has been all but destroyed because of the allegations.
Amendola said during a break Tuesday that he always thought a jury of local residents could be picked.
The questions posed to the prospective jurors sought to see what biases, if any, they brought to the highly publicized case, and if they knew potential witnesses or would be more inclined to believe a law enforcement authority on the stand because of his or her job.
Other questions went to the heart of prospective jurors’ connections to Penn State, some of which disqualified jurors and others that didn’t matter.
Early Tuesday, Cleland greeted the more than 200 prospective jurors in the main courtroom of the courthouse. He announced that they will not be sequestered but told them they aren’t allowed to read or watch news reports about the proceedings. The trial is expected to last about three weeks.
The most surprising selection may have been the young Penn State student, whose job means he works for the university’s athletic department — which once employed Sandusky. He also has a cousin who played football for the Nittany Lions years ago.
The young man said he also played on an all-star football team for Steve Turchetta, a former football coach at Central Mountain High School who is a possible witness for the prosecution. According to the grand jury, Turchetta received a report from a boy’s mother that Sandusky had abused her son.
The Penn State student from Penns Valley also said he indirectly knows a relative of alleged victim No. 6, and implied that his mother, who works for the State College Area School District, knows something about the case she isn’t allowed to tell him.
But, he didn’t place blame for the tumultuous events at Penn State on any one person, which was a response to a question from Amendola. The young man answered by saying “a lot of people” were involved and even saying former head coach Joe Paterno did some things he shouldn’t have done, but he didn’t elaborate.
The young man’s connection to Turchetta is what prompted Amendola to try to get him off the jury, but Cleland denied the motion saying, “He said he could be fair. He said he could exercise his judgment.”
Amendola conferred with Sandusky, but they decided against using what’s called a peremptory strike, of which they get seven, to keep the prospective juror from being accepted to the jury.
Several people with Penn State ties were either excused or eliminated by attorneys.
A man who said he’s happily employed at the university as a professor of biochemistry and microbiology said he came to know former Penn State administrator Gary Schultz while their sons were growing up. Schultz is facing a perjury charge for testimony he gave to the grand jury investigating Sandusky.
Prosecutor Joseph E. McGettigan III said the man was a donor to The Second Mile — something Amendola said he didn’t know about — and Cleland excused him.
McGettigan had others with Penn State employment ties removed by using a peremptory challenge.
One was a retired economics professor who said he had Mike McQueary in class, knew former university President Graham Spanier professionally, and knows Booker Brooks, who is on the prosecution’s witness list.
The second was an alumni relations staffer in the College of Engineering whom McGettigan asked to have removed because of the public contact the man has in his job.
Sandusky sat through the afternoon session of individual jury questioning. He was calm, rarely speaking, but watching closely. He took notes at times, looked at the jurors, some of whom said they had already made up their mind about the case, which got some excused.
One man knew Sandusky and his wife, Dottie, from church. The man was excused because of his personal ties to Sandusky.
But Sandusky’s face lit up with a smile when one woman said she taught Sandusky’s last adopted child, Matt Heichel, in third grade. The woman said she hasn’t seen him since and wouldn’t recognize him on the street, but she said she was aware of his family situation and knew about when he set a barn on fire because she lived down the hill from it.
Amendola thought it would be difficult for her to be objective because she teaches young children, and it’s young boys who Sandusky is alleged to have abused.
“I would probably always lean toward the children no matter,” she said.
Amendola used one of his peremptory challenges on her.
Those without Penn State connections were excused, too.
One woman was let go because she is related to Shawn Weaver, chief of the Bellefonte Police Department, and has a sister who works in the Centre County District Attorney’s Office. She said she would be inclined to think law enforcement authorities are more credible at trial.
Another was Amy Farkas, the Harris Township manager, who said she “watched my community get ripped apart in November, mostly by the national media. In my mind, the trial is not supposed to be about Penn State or Penn State football or football Saturdays with Joe Paterno.”
And another was a man who worked at the Rockview state prison in Benner Township. He said that through his job, he has “seen some pretty bad stuff” about what happens to children, and couldn’t be fair.
Most of those questioned said they had read or heard about the Sandusky case, and the judge said that wouldn’t keep them from being selected.
Two people were excused because they had family members who were either a victim of or accused of committing sexual crimes. An elderly man, who said he was placed in a foster home at age 10, was excused, too.
A few said they heard very little, and one of those, a young woman who works for The Apartment Store in State College, said she doesn’t keep up with the news.
“I just heard about it,” she said about the case. “I didn’t hear any details or anything specific.”
She was one of the nine chosen on the first day of the Sandusky case proceedings.
Mike Dawson can be reached at 231-4616. Follow him on Twitter @MikeDawsonCDT