Bellefonte Awaits the Media Circus

December 12, 2011 at 2:12 pm 1 comment

Bellefonte_courthouseUpdate: The judge in charge of Tuesday’s preliminary hearing ruled Monday that reporters can indeed send Twitter updates from the hearing. A partial list of those who will be tweeting can be found here.

The town of Bellefonte, population about 6,000, is about to be overrun with news media. Its courthouse (Bellefonte is the county seat of Centre County) will be the site of tomorrow’s preliminary hearing for Jerry Sandusky ’66, ’71g, charged with 52 counts related to alleged acts of sexual abuse against 10 boys.

Usually a preliminary hearing is a pretty routine affair in which the prosecution calls a few witnesses and a district justice decides whether there’s enough evidence to take the case to trial. But nothing about the Sandusky case is routine.

It’s expected that the prosecution will call at least six witnesses tomorrow, including some of the alleged victims, and that defense attorney Joe Amendola ’70 will engage in substantial cross examination of at least some of them. The hearing could stretch well into the evening or beyond.

The borough of Bellefonte is expecting a swarm of news media trucks, cameras, and personnel tomorrow. Police have ordered the streets around the courthouse to be closed starting at 6:00 this evening and continuing all day Tuesday until midnight. Some of the local merchants are concerned about the effect on holiday shoppers—but then again, according to this story in the Centre Daily Times, at least one plans to serve coffee to the media outside her store.

(Interestingly, that story was written by Adam Beasley of the Miami Herald. Our senior editor Lori Shontz, who used to work at that paper, tells us that he’s just one of several reporters from other McClatchy papers brought into town to augment the CDT‘s coverage of the ongoing Sandusky-related events.)

The district judge presiding over the preliminary hearing has issued a “Decorum Order” spelling out exactly which news media get to sit where and what the rules will be. You can read about that in this article by the Poynter Institute. A few points of interest:

—You won’t be able to watch this hearing live on TV. There will be no cameras in the courtroom. (Hey, this ain’t California or Florida.)

—There also will be no Tweeting or live blogging. Reporters can use laptops only for note-taking; all cell phones, iPhones, and the like will have to be turned off—not just set to “vibrate” mode—and must remain out of sight.

—None of those iconic interviews on the courthouse steps; there’s a special area set aside for that.

—There even will be a sketch artist in the courtroom. I remember covering a murder trial in that same courthouse in 1983 where there was a sketch artist, but other than that, I can’t remember the last time Centre County had a trial (much less a preliminary hearing) where there was a sketch artist.

I’ve often wondered, as the hearing approaches, how the alleged victims will be able to testify and still maintain their anonymity. Apparently others are wondering that, too: Sara Ganim ’08 addresses this a bit in a story in the Harrisburg Patriot-News.

Mainstream media—including The Patriot-News and PennLive.com—have long adhered to policies that attempt to shield the identity of victims of sex abuse. But there is no law to keep members of the public who are allowed in the courtroom from revealing the identity of the witnesses.

It’s unclear if those who take the stand will be required to state their names for the record in public. But safeguards are under way to make sure they are not photographed as they enter and leave the white-columned courthouse on a hill, said attorney Ben Andreozzi, who represents the man the grand jury called Victim Four.

As for the outcome of tomorrow’s hearing, any of a number of things could happen. The district justice could bind the case over for trial on some or all of the charges, or he could dismiss the charges. He also could conceivably raise Sandusky’s bail. And a plea bargain—in which Sandusky admits guilt to some of the charges in exchange for a lighter sentence than he might get if he goes to trial—is, theoretically, a possibility at any time.

Tina Hay, editor

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