Three Big Obstacles in the Jerry Sandusky Case

How the law and bureaucracy slowed things down.


While debates over the investigation of Jerry Sandusky will haunt Pennsylvania — and Penn State, in particular — for decades to come, Monday’s release of Kathleen Kane’s probe into the investigation (full report below) that very slowly built to Sandusky’s conviction might put to rest some of the rumors that have dogged participants for years.

Turns out you can’t blame Tom Corbett for dragging his heels on the case. But the case developed slowly, and according to the probe, blame can be spread far and wide: Too often, the right hand didn’t know what the left hand was doing. Based on Monday’s report, here are three places where the system was either slow or less-than-maximally effective in bringing Jerry Sandusky to justice:

1. The Law

One problem for 2008 investigators looking into allegations against Jerry Sandusky is that they didn’t have ready access to a 1998 investigation that ended without any charges. Why is that?

Under current law in Pennsylvania, all reports that are deemed “unfounded,” meaning that they were neither “indicated” nor “founded,” must be expunged no later than one year and 120 days after the filing of the report.

The result?

Any reference to the 1998 investigation in the ChildLine statewide central registry had been expunged by operation of the [Child Protective Services Law] long before 2008. Had the legislature made a different judgment, for example by allowing for the retention of records in cases where professionals perceive a risk of future abuse, both Clinton County CYS and PSP might have learned of the 1998 allegations in November 2008.

So the legislature is getting right on that, right?

One area for change proposed by the Task Force, but not yet adopted, concerns the expungement of reports of child abuse. The Task Force proposed that “the expungement process [be] eliminated. Reports will be kept indefinitely, with their access limited to authorized county children and youth agency personnel and law enforcement personnel for purposes of assessing and investigating allegations of child abuse and neglect.”

Emphasis added.

This is somewhat understandable: If an investigation can’t turn up proof of child abuse, is it fair to let the accused walk around with the cloud of accusation over their head, even if that cloud takes the form of documents very few people will ever see. On the other hand: A case unproven today may offer strands that help provide proof later. Should authorities have to start from scratch in every new investigation? That doesn’t seem right either.

2. Go-It-Alone Nature of Bureaucracies

After 9/11, many in the federal government lamented the relative inability of the CIA and FBI to talk to each other about important cases. Sharing information between agencies, and even adopting a multi-department approach to some issues, became a priority for lawmakers in the years after the attack

Similarly, various agencies involved in tracking the allegations against Sandusky might’ve been too “siloed” from each other to make maximum progress once he became a suspect.

One significant missed opportunity in the early stages of the investigation was the interview by CYS (Children and Youth Services) of Sandusky on January 15, 2009. As noted in Part One, Section A of this report, the interview was conducted by a CYS caseworker and solicitor. Neither the Pennsylvania State Police nor the Clinton County District Attorney’s Office participated in the interview in any way. This was a notable failure, particularly since at no point later in the investigation did law enforcement manage to interview Sandusky.  While Sandusky’s admissions played an important role at his trial, the focus of the CYS employees was not on a later criminal prosecution. Professional criminal investigators almost certainly would have gathered more information useful for the criminal investigation and prosecution, perhaps including not only more damaging admissions but also leads to other victims or additional information in support of a search warrant.

Here, at least, there’s been some improvement:

It bears noting that under the current investigative team protocol in Clinton County, formally adopted in 2013, CYS staff members take the lead in interviews of children while law enforcement personnel take the lead in interviews of alleged offenders. This approach is consistent with the generally accepted practice of having law enforcement handle the interrogation of suspects.

3. General Sloppiness

That’s not how the report states it, exactly, but it’s hard to avoid the impression that the Office of Attorney General simply wasn’t ready to handle a high-profile child molestation case when it arrived:

When the Sandusky investigation came to OAG in March 2009, investigators and prosecutors faced a problem familiar to experts in the investigation of acquaintance child molesters: a vulnerable and troubled victim making accusations against a pillar of the community.They recognized the importance of finding corroboration for those accusations, and believed that Sandusky had likely victimized others. Unfortunately, no considered, comprehensive plan to identify additional victims emerged before late 2010. Instead, the early search for victims was largely limited to interviewing people identified either by A.F. or by officials at CMHS. Had investigators and prosecutors taken a “big-picture” approach at the outset,brainstorming for ideas about how best to proceed, they might well have identified and pursued avenues that proved successful later, such as searching Sandusky’s residence, reviewing his autobiography, Touched,and aggressively exploring the possibility that Sandusky had been investigated previously.

Emphasis added. It’s easier to attack a problem if you have a plan of attack, in other words.

The closest thing offered to a defense against this particular observation comes from prosecutors who served in the attorney general’s office at the time the investigation was culminating; it boils down to “we did the best we could with the resources we had.”

The idea that anyone in law enforcement has the ability to focus solely for years on one or two matters is a complete and utter fiction. Throughout the time in question all of us were extensively involved in any number of murder, rape, drug, political corruption, child predator and other cases. Indeed, the Office of Attorney General during these years was arguably more productive than at any other point in its history.

And they did prosecute Sandusky and put him away, after all. Was it enough? Was it quick enough? Those arguments will probably never end.

Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.

Here’s the full report: