June 11, 2012
I stood in the parking lot of a restaurant just outside of Penn State earlier this evening. The sun had just dipped below the hills in the distance. Though the oncoming clouds a soft glow still filled the sky as a light splattering of raindrops dotted the windshields of the cars around me. Curtis was using our rental car as a makeshift studio to finish up his final interview of the day with a radio talk show host. I spent those brief, calm moments thinking about what happened today and what, if anything, changed. I pondered what I had seen and heard at the trial in Bellfonte, and felt drained.
We drove into State College last night. After sleeping a few short hours, Curtis and I rose before that sun did and we headed to the courthouse. All my ideas for how I wanted to set up a tent and table for this momentous day were traded in for a “Let’s just play it how it lies” attitude.” I was nervous, but confident that just being here was a huge statement of support for the alleged victims.
Arriving at the courthouse a little after 6AM, we expected to see chaos. Instead we saw a pretty well organized set-up. There was still a crush of media trucks, so many as to almost blot out the courthouse as we drove up West High Street, but it seemed oddly calm. (We learned that part of the reason things seemed calm was because much of the press who were here for the preliminary hearing didn’t bother coming back for the start of the trial.) Regardless, the assembled swarm of media was impressive enough.
I’m not proud to admit this, but I had to fight off the urge to turn back. The abused kid in me didn’t want to face down all these strangers whom he was sure were going to be mean. But I didn’t run. Compared to what 8 brave young men were steeling themselves to do inside that courthouse, what did I have to complain about? I don’t remember who we talked to first, or how it all played out, but before I knew it I was walking down a line of reporters passing out media kits, introducing myself, and explaining who we were and why we were there. Then, the courthouse doors opened.
I hadn’t planned to go in. My plan was to spend the day trying to speak to the press. Honestly I didn’t even think I’d be able to get into the courtroom. But because there were so few people here to witness the start of the trial I decided to go in. The stately county courtroom was hot, stuffy, and crowded to start. An expectant buzz ebbed and flowed through the spectators just as in the moments before the main curtain rises at an opening night. Then, suddenly, a sharp clear voice rang out, “This court is now in session.” And all fell silent.
The palpable tension was somewhat relieved by the routines of starting a trial. The jury was led in, seated, sworn in, and given their instructions by the judge. Both sides made opening statements and before I knew it we were released for lunch. I could summarize the morning’s events, but others already covered most of the main points. I will say this, though. Sandusky’s attorney made it clear that his strategy was to paint the accusers as money-grubbing liars bent on taking Sandusky down for their own benefit. The survivors and victim’s advocates I spoke to all expected as much. It’s the blueprint for how you attack victims who seek justice, smear them to look worse than your guy already does. As despicable as it is to hear, it’s so predictable that we’d be more shocked to not hear that defense. By this point of the day the only thing I’d consumed was a cup of coffee, but the intensity and importance of this moment was so consuming that I didn’t even feel hungry.
When we returned, Victim #4 was brought in. As the first witness of the trial took the stand, we leaned forward a bit more. For the next few hours the air seemed to stand still as he powerfully recounted a story that was horrible and, to me, sadly familiar. I give McGettigan, the prosecutor, credit for how the direct examination was done—spending a little time on mild, but relevant details, and then returning to ask about those terrible facts. Each time taking us a little further in the story and getting more and more details of how Sandusky allegedly groped, fondled, and eventually forced his way on the boy we saw pictured in photo after photo with Sandusky. The years of their relationship were laid bare for all to see, and, as presented by the prosecution seemed pretty damning. The letters Sandusky wrote to that boy especially struck me as extraordinary for their tone. I remember thinking that the things I was seeing in these letters were to be expected by a jilted lover, not someone who deeply cared with an adult’s perspective about the welfare of a child. For many reporters, these letters showed obliviousness for the boundaries that should exist between an adult and a child that was shocking. But there were a few who recognized it. Some were transported into dark places in their own memory and spent the afternoon recess in a daze.
And then the Cross-Examination began. It was astounding and riveting. Time and again Sandusky’s attorney tried to attack parts of #4’s story—asking him to repeat seemingly random details, then asking what seemed to me to be purposefully obtuse questions designed to try and trip up the accuser. And time and again this man, this brave, strong, courageous survivor, withstood the attacks, veiled accusations, and skepticism of all he had admitted to publicly not a few moments before. At no point did his anger or frustration get the best of him, though it was clear by his tone that he would not allow himself to be bullied, harassed, or misunderstood. Time and again he answered questions that tried to paint him into a corner with more context justifying his conduct with clearly elucidated reasons. Why didn’t he just stop seeing Sandusky? Sandusky wouldn’t leave him alone. Why didn’t he tell anyone? How could he be expected to divulge that the rumors and harassing jokes he endured at school about having a special relationship with Sandusky were true? Every time he countered it was thrilling and inspiring to watch.
The afternoon finally came to an end, and I sat for a few moments as the reporters hurried down to summarize, and maybe grab a few more quotes before deadlines that were fast approaching. I thought about the battle I had just watched, and how it was just the first of many Sandusky and his attorneys will fight over the coming weeks. I can’t pretend to know how the jury felt about what was said. But I can tell you that today I watched one survivor speak for millions, and he did a damn good job.
At one point, when asked why he spoke out know, he gave among his reasons that he felt a responsibility to those other boy who came after him. Once he found out there were others, he said that he knew that if he had said something in the past, maybe someone of them could have been saved from what happened to him. It was obvious to me that that pain still burned within him. And it was clear his anger wasn’t all directed at the man he now accuses of these crimes. I didn’t have a way to get a message to him, but as I stood in the dying light of this momentous day I thought about what I would say if I had. By taking that stand today, he did something amazing and profound. Today that sun shined for him. And as it went down behind me, I let a sense of gratitude fill my heart. Even though I’ll never have the chance to do what that man did, my world is made better for his having done it. And for that I give thanks.
Related content: Sandusky, Triggers, and Self-Care
—Photo credit: ell brown/Flickr