Q&A: Jerry Sandusky’s Lawyer, Joe Amendola, Talks

The Philly-born attorney opens up about Harrisburg's anti-PSU conspiracy, Joe Paterno's firing, that Bob Costas interview and more.

This case centers on kids. Your own childhood was hardly idyllic.
When I was growing up, it was very, very unusual for families not to have both parents—especially in South Philly. My parents had my brother and sister, twins, when I was 13, but my mother couldn’t take the pressure of more kids. I can remember vividly her waking me up and saying, “Will you take care of the babies?” before leaving the house at night. My dad was a printer who worked the night shift, so he’d go to work at midnight and not be back until eight. So at 13 I wound up essentially raising my infant brother and sister, a lot of times missing school. And when I say “missing school,” I mean weeks at a time. We had a great family doctor who would just write notes, because I was insistent that my father not tell the nun why I was out. I was embarrassed. We wound up losing our house. That was a life experience, literally getting moved out.

What happened to your mother?
She’d go to bars. She started just going out an hour or two, and then over a month or two it started becoming all night. Finally when I was 13, she left and didn’t come back. I always thought that when I got out of college, I’d go and rescue her. But she fell down the steps one day—I don’t know if she had been drinking—and hit her head. She got an aneurism and died.

You have a very personal connection to Penn State, correct?
I studied at Ogontz, then came up to State College in the winter of ’69.  Those were the days when students would throw ropes over the sides of our buildings and lift up kegs. Today, you’d get arrested for having the keg. And then instead of going to Vietnam in ’70, I went to law school at Georgetown. I’d always dreamt of being an assistant D.A. in Philly.

How did you end up back in State College?
I love snow, the mountains, the openness. And I love the school. I always had it in the back of my mind that it’d be nice to come back to State College as an attorney just to see if it works. So I packed up. My dad sold me an old beat-up Mustang for five hundred bucks. I had two suits and a sport jacket. I started my practice in 1978.

How did you meet Jerry Sandusky?
I met him through the Second Mile. I was asked to help out and raise money. I’d meet Jerry at functions, including the golf tournaments. Jerry got to know me and asked me to be on the board; I couldn’t do it then, but said I’d do it later. Then Jerry called me in the fall of 2008, when he was notified that there was an accusation.

Why take this case?
I want to prove everyone wrong, because Jerry has maintained his innocence. And I believe, after talking with him for as long as I have for three and a half years, that he is innocent. And if he is innocent, he deserves to have representation from someone who believes in that innocence. Even though the odds are still against him, there are people who are found guilty who spend years in jail and are executed and are still innocent.

He’s been painted as a monster. How are you going to humanize him?
We’ve tried to do that by showing him as still wanting to see his family, and seeing his grandkids, by showing how much he enjoys working with kids and how they made him feel like a kid, so we’ve tried to do it that way.

Has it crossed your mind that this could be the Casey Anthony trial of the summer?
Yeah. I’ve been in contact with attorneys who’ve been involved with those types of cases—in particular, Amanda Knox’s attorney. They say what I’m doing is on track. It’s amazing the number of attorneys who’ve reached out to me and told me that what I’m doing is absolutely brilliant because you had no chance, nowhere to go, and if I took the traditional role of just zipping everything up and not saying anything, there wouldn’t need to be a trial. We’re never going to change the people who have already made up their minds one way or the other. But there’s a good percentage of people who are now asking questions. For example: If Jerry was such an animal, why did the attorney general wait three years to charge him? They could’ve charged him after the first young guy came forward. To use [the excuse] that they had the grand jury going is nonsense. They could’ve charged him with accuser number one, and still investigated the other cases. But they waited three years. Why did they wait three years? Why did they hold the psychological evaluations back so long?

Have you been following what’s going on in Philly with the Catholic Church?
I think there’s some parallels with Jerry. This is much like a priest situation over years, where the priests had access to kids and allegedly took advantage of them. The difference is, we have one person and not a bunch of priests; we have a person who says, “I didn’t do it,” unlike some of the priests who were involved in this stuff and admitted they did it. If Jerry came to me and admitted he did these things or even some of these things, I wouldn’t be going down this path.

You’ve said that if Jerry is found guilty of this, that he should go to jail for life. Do you still believe that?

Is that a dumb thing to say?
Not really. I think the average person says that makes Jerry’s lawyer credible.

Jerry has maintained his innocence, yet the one detail that sticks out is that according to the presentment, he said to victim number six’s mother, “I wish I was dead.”
You have to remember the context: He was talking to the mother of number six. The context was that he was upset that the boy might be upset. He kept telling the mom, “Well, can I talk with him? I’m sure I can explain this, that I didn’t mean to do anything inappropriate, and if I did I’m very sorry, because it wasn’t my intent to do that.” You have to understand, here’s a guy who spent much of his life helping kids. That’s why he started Second Mile, contrary to what the other side would have you believe—that he did this as a grooming facility, for crying out loud. The police were set up in the house [of victim number six’s mother] to see if he would tell her that he did something inappropriate, but he never said that. He denied it and said, “I never did that.” He said, “Can I talk with number six?,” and the mother said, “No. I don’t want you hanging around with him. I don’t want you having contact with him.” What’s ironic is that following that interaction, the mother continued [allowing] Jerry to see number six. And in fact, Jerry says, on one occasion, she was standing outside of Beaver Stadium and flagged him down and asked him to take her boy to the football game. Number six maintained his friendly—not inappropriate—relationship with Jerry up until as recently as last summer, when they had lunch together, with [Jerry’s wife] Dottie at Cracker Barrel.

How is Dottie?
God bless her, she’s held her own. Imagine: You can’t go anywhere. You’re so used to doing things and doing things with your husband, and all of a sudden, people are thinking your husband is a pedophile. You’re out by yourself, and you hear the whispers and see the headlines.

Your theory seems to be that there was an orchestrated effort to dismantle the Penn State hierarchy. Why would someone want to do that?
For years, Penn State set itself apart. It would go to Harrisburg every year and say, basically, “We’re better than everyone, and we deserve special treatment.” They wouldn’t divulge their materials and information about who was making what kind of money and things that were going on internally. So I think when the attorney general’s office got involved with the first accuser, they saw it as an opportunity to not only go after a big-name person like Jerry Sandusky, but also take a shot at Penn State. I don’t think they ever had a clue just how deep this was going to go, and how severe the ramifications were going to be. I don’t think they ever envisioned that Joe Paterno would be fired. I always maintained from the beginning that the government was going after more than Jerry Sandusky. And I think that’s proven true. Now the feds are investigating, and the state may be looking at other things having to do with stuff, things that had nothing to do with kids.

Do you think Paterno should have done more once the first alleged incident was brought to his attention?
I think based upon what he knew at the time, no. And I think quite honestly, what the board of trustees did to Joe Paterno, and secondarily to Graham Spanier, although I was never particularly a Graham Spanier fan, was a knee-jerk reaction—immediate action to cut off this tidal wave that was sweeping against Penn State. I think they should have waited until there were hearings.

Could they have waited, though? It would’ve been the last game of Paterno’s career, and the images would have been of players lifting him up and celebrating him. You’ve got a huge sex abuse scandal, and fans are cheering.
That’s one way to look at it. But there was no concrete proof that Joe Paterno did anything inappropriate. Mike McQueary testified at [Tim] Curley and [Gary] Schultz’s preliminary hearing that he didn’t give any details to Paterno. So what did Coach Paterno know, and was his reaction appropriate for what he was being told? He didn’t say to McQueary, “Don’t say anything about this, keep it hush.” He said, “You’ve gotta tell Tim Curley and let those guys take care of it.” You’re looking through the glasses of a 75-year-old man at the time. This is a guy old enough to be my father who probably, when he heard what he heard, said, “I don’t need this. I’m having enough trouble still keeping up with the football team. Let Curley and Gary Schultz figure out what happened.”

In the aftermath of Jerry’s interview with Bob Costas, you were heavily criticized.
I’ve taken a lot of bullets.

When Jerry was making those comments, what was going through your mind?
Well, you have to understand—there was a tidal wave of presumption of guilt from day one. The national reporters were saying this was a done deal, Jerry Sandusky is guilty as hell. I had to do something drastic. I had to do something that was so completely off the wall to try and turn this thing around. And I said, “What can I do?” No matter what I said, the media was going to write it off as lawyer spin. I know Jerry’s not a good speaker: He hesitates about everything before he answers, which for a lot of people makes it look like he’s guilty. But that’s just the way he talks. I mean, for example, “Jerry, how are you doing today?” [Mimics Sandusky] “Well, I don’t know. I guess all right.” But in any event, I thought it was really important for him to be heard on national TV and say, “I didn’t do this.” And that’s what he said.

But you must have been nervous.
Of course. And then the next day, on The Today Show, I realized I really had to take the offensive with Ann Curry, who later in another interview called me incompetent. It was incredible.

The media has also attacked you regarding your ex-wife, specifically the story that you got her pregnant when she was 17, when she was your client, and then married her.
Ironically, that garnered me a lot of sympathy, because people thought it was way over the line. And I said to people who asked me about it, “I’m not the person on trial. My personal life is my personal life.” The people locally know that it’s 15 years ago. What they were inferring was outrageous. But to respond to it is to give it credibility, and my talent has always been, “Hey, that’s my personal life. If you want to go out there and look like idiots, then so be it.”

Jerry certainly was hearing all of this criticism. Why do you think he stuck with you?
That’s a good question. I often ask myself why, when this all happened, he didn’t just go and get some national lawyer. I can’t speak for him, but I think he realized there was a method to my madness. And by the way, regarding that interview and the other things that I had done initially, I got calls from a number of top trial attorneys who said what I was doing was brilliant. They said, “What you just did was you took the battle to them, instead of just getting dumped on by them.”

So after all of this criticism, you held a party.
[Laughs] It wasn’t a party. It was the Sunday night before Tuesday’s preliminary hearing. And all the national media were trying to get an interview with me. So I was tired at that point. My phone was burning up. I said, “Look, I’m going to watch the Giants vs. Dallas football game tonight at my home. If you’d like to come over and talk to me about this, you can.” I invited them all, to be fair. I invited all the national networks. It wasn’t a party. It was a discussion and to watch the game. And you know, when you come to my house, what’s mine is yours. And whatever you’d like to have, I had food, the bar’s downstairs, I didn’t pour one drink for anybody, but there’s a bar and there’s the fridge, and if you want to have something to drink, go ahead. So it was always misnomered as a party. It was really a media effort on my part to get my side out again. I was promoting our defense.

What was your reaction when one of those reporters got a DUI?
I felt awful for him. I even reached out to him.

To rep him?
I would’ve done it out of courtesy, because I felt badly he got to that point. There were other NBC people here that night that he could’ve gotten a ride with. No one was drinking heavily, and it wasn’t like this was a bash. Basically, we’re talking Jerry Sandusky’s defense, and everybody’s cheering for the Giants—except this one guy, and maybe that’s what happened. He was a Dallas fan, and he lost in the end.

This interview was conducted in early April, prior to Judge John Cleland’s issuing of a gag order in the case. An excerpt appears in the June 2012 issue of Philadelphia magazine.