November 15, 2011 / 9:58 PM / 6 years ago

Sandusky's risky legal playbook seen as "mind-boggling"

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Criminal defendants have the right to remain silent. But former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky just became a test case for what happens when they don‘t.

Sandusky embarked on a dangerous path when he publicly defended himself against child sex abuse charges during a hastily arranged press interview on Monday, according to legal and crisis management experts.

In a telephone interview with NBC’s Bob Costas that was broadcast on national television, Sandusky said that he is not a pedophile, but he admitted he had showered with young boys.

By answering questions from a journalist, Sandusky opted to disregard the advice that most defense lawyers give clients who have been criminally charged: keep quiet.

“In terms of the legal consequences, it’s nothing but a potentially bad situation for him,” said Ronald Allen, a professor at Northwestern University School of Law. “Nothing good can come from a prospective defendant giving a public interview. From the legal point of view it’s really ill-advised.”

Any statements Sandusky makes could be used against him in court, said Allen, because they are not legally considered hearsay. A general rule of evidence in criminal cases is that a public statement can be used in court testimony by any person testifying against the defendant, said Allen.

Sandusky was charged by the Pennsylvania attorney general with sexually abusing eight children over more than a decade. Sandusky has denied the charges and he is free on bail.

The scandal has damaged the reputation of Penn State, where some of the alleged abuses took place, and led to the ouster of its president, and its legendary football coach Joe Paterno.

During the interview with Costas, Sandusky acknowledged that he “should not have showered with those kids.”

He also told Costas: “I have hugged them and I have touched their leg without intent of sexually contact.”

By making those admissions, Sandusky eliminated some options he may have had in developing his legal strategy, said Aitan Goelman, a former federal prosecutor who is now a defense attorney at the law firm Zuckerman Spaeder.

“To the extent that Sandusky testifies, he’s now he’s locked into his story,” said Goelman. “It’s mind-boggling how that cannot be a disaster.”

Richard Levick, a crisis public relations expert and a trained lawyer, said that at times during the interview, Sandusky was successful at portraying himself as a “human being” who is committed to children.

But Levick said Sandusky failed when Costas asked Sandusky whether he was sexually attracted to boys.

Sandusky did not directly reply immediately, but eventually he said no.

“He hemmed and he hawed and he sounded a lot worse than the husband who gets asked, ‘Honey does this dress make me look fat?'” said Levick. “He wasn’t able to answer it with the kind of authority that an innocent person should.”

Levick said he likely would have advised Sandusky to issue a written statement pronouncing his innocence. The interview allowed Costas to “drive the narrative,” Levick said.

It is unclear who made the decision for Sandusky to speak on his own behalf. On Tuesday, Costas said in an appearance on the television show “Morning Joe” that he was expecting to speak with Sandusky’s attorney, Joe Amendola.

About 15 minutes before the interview, Amendola said Sandusky would be available to speak.

“We pivoted and made it an interview with Sandusky,” Costas said.


While it’s not unheard of to take to the airwaves before trial -- Michael Jackson and Timothy McVeigh both tried it as well -- at least one other high-profile defendant has recently gotten dinged over his public appearances.

Former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich went on something of a public roadshow proclaiming his innocence before his two trials on corruption charges, holding press conferences and appearing on MSNBC and ABC’s “Good Morning America.”

His TV appearances sparked strong admonitions from the judge overseeing the case, and prosecutors used his public statements against him at trial, accusing him of lying about his FBI interview.

“That happened so early in the cross examination that it really laid bare the folly of letting a defendant talk to the press,” said Lance Northcutt, a defense attorney in Chicago who teaches trial advocacy at John Marshall Law School.

Blagojevich was convicted in June on 17 counts of fraud, soliciting bribes and conspiracy.


While it’s usually ill-advised to talk to the media, Sandusky’s situation may be different because he is so embattled, said Stuart Green, a professor at Rutgers School of Law in Newark, New Jersey.

“The man’s reputation is so tattered that he is trying to save some sense of dignity.”

“I don’t know what he can lose at this point,” said Green. “There’s so much evidence and so much fury; I guess if he can achieve some sympathy, he might help himself.”

Reporting by Andrew Longstreth and Carlyn Kolker; Editing by Eileen Daspin and Eric Walsh

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