Jurors in the Jerry Sandusky trial are hearing from witnesses who’ve struggled at times to recount the sexual abuses they say happened to them as children, a personally painful but legally necessary outpouring.
While the accusers’ testimony is helping to build a case for the prosecution, it also offers Sandusky’s defense the opportunity to raise questions about their motivations and to note inconsistencies in their stories in an effort to build reasonable doubt in the jurors’ minds.
During cross-examination, a legal tradition enshrined in the Sixth Amendment of the Constitution, the testimony is especially raw.
“Very often the sentiments are on the side of the victims,” said Robert Weisberg, a criminal law expert who teaches at Stanford University. “But constitutionally, the sentiments are on the side of the defendant.”
Eight of Sandusky’s accusers identified in a state grand-jury report testified this week. The court is in recess until next week, when the defense will call its first witness.
Sandusky, 68, a former Penn State assistant football coach, is charged with 52 counts of molesting at least 10 boys over a 15-year-period.
On Tuesday, Sandusky attorney Joe Amendola asked an 18-year-old identified as “Victim 1” whether the young man’s mother had hired an attorney to seek financial gain from the case, and whether the witness wanted “big houses” and “nice cars.”
“Doesn’t everybody?” the young man replied. He explained that the lawyer was hired to keep away the news media.
The young man grew flustered at times with the repeated questioning and some exchanges with Amendola were testy. Judge John Cleland admonished the young man to answer the questions, reminding him that “this is not an argument.”
Amendola read out varying estimates that the young man had given social workers, state police and the grand jury of how many times Sandusky allegedly had assaulted him and where the incidents took place.
“Oh, my God,” the young man said, putting his face in his hands. “It’s hard enough to tell these folks in the jury what happened, let alone the people in this room.”
The young man said embarrassment explained the discrepancies. He said it was hard for him to talk about what had taken place between Sandusky and him, and he said he gave lowball estimates to some authorities because he was afraid to tell them the full extent of the alleged abuses.
“I just wanted to stop everything that I was doing and forget it ever happened,” he said.
A 27-year-old man known as “Victim 7” had told the grand jury there was no sexual contact between Sandusky and him. But after receiving therapy, he said Wednesday, he now remembers there was.
“I had everything negative blocked out,” the witness said.
About 90 percent of the victims of child sexual abuse develop post-traumatic stress disorder, according to the National Center for PTSD. It’s not unusual for victims of traumatic events – whether sexual abuse, natural disasters or combat experiences – to try to resist talking about their experiences, said Ernestine Briggs-King, an assistant professor at the Duke University School of Medicine and the director of data and evaluation for the National Center for Childhood Traumatic Stress.
“A lot of what happens in response to trauma is so uncontrollable,” she said. “People actively try to forget and avoid.”
A 23-year-old known as “Victim 5” described Sandusky taking him into a sauna on the Penn State campus and exposing himself.
“I noticed that his penis was enlarged, but I didn’t understand the significance of it back then,” he said, becoming emotional.
On Wednesday, Amendola continued to raise doubts about the accusers, including why some of them had waited so long to come forward and why others have changed their stories. He’s also implied that some accusers know each other. He noted that “Victim 10” had spent time in prison for robbery and had problems with drugs and alcohol. The man, now 25, also was the roommate of another Sandusky accuser at a Second Mile camp.
Weisberg of Stanford said he didn’t think these details did much to undermine the witnesses’ credibility.
“Even if the particular parts of some testimony are weakened by cross-examination, as long as there is enough fully credible testimony, the prosecution is going to be in very good shape,” he said.
On Monday, a 28-year-old man known as Victim 4 testified calmly and matter-of-factly, in graphic detail, about Sandusky’s alleged attempts to force oral sex on him in locker room showers. On Tuesday, Victim 1 struggled to describe sleepovers at Sandusky’s house that he said would start with mild affection but progress to much more.
“After rubbing and cracking my back and running his hands down the back of my shorts, and blowing on my stomach,” the young man said, starting to sob, “he put his mouth on my privates.”
Later, the young man put his hands on his face and sobbed again when he described how Sandusky allegedly had asked him to reciprocate.
“He said something to the effect of, ‘It’s your turn.’”
Briggs-King said the age differences between the young men could explain how they held up.
“If it happened awhile back, he may have had counseling or had time to at least process it,” she said of the older accusers. “An 18-year-old may not have had the benefit of time and treatment.”
The younger the alleged victims, the harder it is to put them on the stand, Briggs-King added.
“One of the things we try to do with very young kids is limit the number of times they have to testify,” she said. “It’s a pretty scary thing.”