The trial of Jerry Sandusky, a former assistant football coach at Penn State, is underway. Sandusky is charged with 52 counts of sexual abuse involving ten boys over a period of fifteen years. Sandusky has consistently maintained his innocence.
A case of this type spotlights all the issues involved in prosecuting allegations of child abuse in which the incidents are alleged to have occurred many years before the trial takes place. These issues produce conflict, the type of conflict that – if you understand the issues – can energize any trial scene that you may seek to bring to life.
Here are some examples of the conflicts posed by such a case:
Credibility of the victims. It is standard fare in any trial to challenge the credibility of the opposing side’s witnesses. In a case like this, there are some unique areas to explore: the failure of the victims to report the alleged abuse, often until years later; inconsistencies in any prior statements, such as statements made to police, to prosecutors, or to a grand jury; a witness’s financial interest in the outcome of the case. It has been reported that some of the witnesses in this case have retained civil attorneys, possibly intending to file civil suits at the conclusion of the criminal trial.
A key factor in a case like this is the difficulty witnesses may have in testifying. Trials are public and victims of sexual abuse often feel humiliation and embarrassment when revealing intimate details about what occurred. In this case, the witnesses may have denied to themselves, and possibly to others, that anything like this ever happened to them. The defense will argue that a witness’s lengthy silence bears on his credibility.
A point in the prosecution’s behalf: strength in numbers. The witnesses are relating factually similar accounts of what happened and the accumulation of such detail will be hard to overcome. On the other hand, the defense is sure to argue that the accounts are similar because, they will assert, the witnesses were coached.
Victims vs. Accusers. It is not unusual in any criminal case to hear prosecutors refer to the “victim” while the defense attorney refers to the same person as “the complainant.” Already in this case, in opening statements, the defense has admonished the jurors to view the witnesses as “accusers” rather than “victims.”
Use of victims’ photos. In murder cases, defense attorneys often try to prevent the prosecution from showing the jury a photo of the deceased on the theory that what the victim looked like is irrelevant to the defendant’s guilt or innocence and that the intent of the photo is to generate sympathy for the victim.
In this case, the victims were children at the time of the alleged offenses and are now adults. The court allowed the prosecution, in opening statements, to show the jury photos of these witnesses at the ages they were when the crimes are said to have occurred. The defense acknowledged that fighting these charges will be like climbing Mt. Everest.
Vulnerability of victims. Not only were the victims in this case young at the time of the alleged abuse, they belonged to an organization called Second Mile, a nonprofit established by Jerry Sandusky to help underprivileged youth. The prosecution will undoubtedly argue that the defendant used this organization to troll for victims. The defense will counter that the accusers loved the summer camps, the gifts they received from Sandusky, the tickets to Penn State games, and other perks, and are now seeking to reap financial benefit as a result of the charges against their former benefactor.
Lack of physical evidence. When a victim promptly reports an act of sexual abuse, the police may be able to gather all kinds of physical evidence including DNA, hair and fibers, fingerprints, shoe prints, etc. In a case like this, where the alleged acts of abuse were not reported until years later, there usually is no physical evidence, or at least no scientific evidence to support the charges. This is where witness credibility becomes the crucial factor in the outcome of the case.
Mental defense. There is evidence that the defendant wrote letters to some of the witnesses when they were children, and kept journals about them. The defense is seeking to introduce testimony of an expert to say that Sandusky suffers from histrionic personality disorder, that is, a need to be the center of attention. It is said that this particular disorder affects only 2 to 3% of the population and that it is not associated with pedophilia.
If the court decides to allow the defense expert to testify, you can expect the prosecution to produce one or more experts to debunk the theory. A trial can be enlivened or deadened by a battle of the experts.
What this means for writers. If you watch the reports of this trial closely, you will see how witnesses handle the stress of testifying in a case like this, and how they respond to rigorous cross-examination. There will be arguments among the lawyers on admissibility of certain types of evidence and, as I mentioned, there may be a battle of the experts. You may get to see the defendant testify and, if he does, the cross-examination will be extensive.
Each side in a criminal case – and this one is no exception – is crafting a narrative but with very high stakes: the witnesses are real and the defendant’s liberty is at issue. You don’t get more drama, more conflict than this.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on whether cases in the news ever inspire your writing.