Penn State hearing: Did officials cover up Jerry Sandusky sex crimes?

A preliminary hearing for three former Penn State officials begins Monday. It will determine whether to move forward with a trial on charges that the men conspired to cover up abuse by Jerry Sandusky.

Bradley C.Bower/AP
Former Penn State assistant football coach Mike McQueary enters the Dauphin County Courthouse in Harrisburg, Pa., on Monday. Graham Spanier, Gary Schultz, and Timothy Curley go before a judge to determine whether the three must face trial on charges that they covered up an allegation that Jerry Sandusky was sexually preying on boys.

Did top officials at Pennsylvania State University cover up early reports of child sexual assault by former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, leaving him free to molest other boys over the next decade?

That’s the question at issue when a Pennsylvania judge begins a preliminary hearing Monday to determine whether former university president Graham Spanier, former senior vice president of business Gary Schultz, and former athletic director Tim Curley should go to trial over perjury and criminal conspiracy charges. 

The three men each face five felony counts for perjury, endangering the welfare of children, and criminal conspiracy related to their “alleged failure to report abuse by Mr. Sandusky and their actions during the investigation,” according to The Wall Street Journal. All three have maintained their innocence.

Sandusky was convicted in June 2012 of 45 counts of sexual abuse involving 10 boys over more than a decade. He is currently serving a sentence of 30 to 60 years in state prison.

The charges against the former Penn State officials stem from a November 2012 grand jury report that accused the men of failing to notify authorities after a graduate assistant in 2001 said he saw Sandusky sexually abusing a boy in a locker room shower. Messrs. Spanier, Schultz, and Curley are accused of failing to report the incident to authorities and creating a “conspiracy of silence” that permitted Sandusky to continue his behavior, according to prosecutors.

The grand jury report and an independent investigation by former FBI Director Louis Freeh last year said that then-graduate assistant Mike McQueary reported witnessing sexual assault by Sandusky in 2001 to late head football coach Joe Paterno. Mr. Paterno reported the incident to Curley and Schultz, who then told former university president Spanier, according to the two reports.

The hearing Monday at the Dauphin County Court is expected to last between one and three days and will determine whether there is enough evidence to bring the men to trial. Under Pennsylvania law, prosecutors are required to show that a crime has been committed and that there is “good reason” to believe that the defendants committed it, according to the Pennsylvania Patriot-News. If the case moves to trial court, prosecutors must then prove the higher burden that the defendants committed a crime “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

The former officials say they were never aware that an allegation at the time involved anything of a sexual nature, but believed the graduate assistant only reported “horseplay” in the university locker room shower, reports the Associated Press.

The Wall Street Journal notes that many legal analysts expect the case to proceed to trial, but say prosecutors face several challenges, among them whether key testimony to their case will be admissible in court.

"This was never an easy case from the beginning," Bruce Antkowiak, a law professor at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pa., and a former assistant US attorney in Pittsburgh, told the Journal.

A key question for prosecutors is whether the testimony of former Penn State general counsel Cynthia Baldwin would be admissible at a trial. Ms. Baldwin told investigators that Spanier, Schultz, and Curley told her they didn’t have any documents related to allegations of abuse, but defense attorneys say her testimony should be thrown out because Baldwin represented the men before she testified against them before the grand jury.

Another central piece of evidence is a brief e-mail exchange between the three men on Feb. 27, 2001. Without naming the exact situation he was referring to, Spanier said he was supportive of the athletic director’s proposed approach. "The only downside for us is if the message isn't 'heard' and acted upon, and we then become vulnerable for not having reported it," Spanier wrote, according to the Associated Press.

Caroline Roberto, who is representing Curley, said that Monday's hearing “is merely a part of the legal process and is not an indicator of a defendant's guilt or innocence,” according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

"Tim Curley is innocent and we look forward to vigorously challenging the charges at every stage," she said.

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