Veteran Pa. judge sits at center of Sandusky storm
BELLEFONTE, Pa. (AP) – He muscled the Jerry Sandusky case to trial in a breakneck seven months and navigated through dozens of pretrial motions and complicated grand jury secrecy issues. In two days, he managed to seat a jury in a case that has attracted worldwide publicity.
Judge John Cleland was brought in from a county 80 miles away to preside over Sandusky’s child sexual abuse case in December, after all the judges in Centre County disqualified themselves. In the months since, the 64-year-old jurist has displayed a textbook judicial bearing on the bench, exhibited a scholarly bent in his written opinions and a shown a firm determination to avoid any unneeded delays.
On Friday, he ruled against defense motions for dismissal of some or all charges, again keeping the process moving.
One of the people who didn’t make the jury said he noticed how Cleland didn’t want them to stand up when he entered the room, and tried to put them at ease.
“He’s really a great judge, and that’s what a lot of the jurors were talking about,” said James Ellis, a retail manager who was among the last people dismissed before the panel was set Wednesday.
Opening statements by the defense and prosecution begin Monday in the trial of Sandusky, 68, the former Penn State assistant coach who is accused of sexual abuse of 10 boys over 15 years, allegations he has repeatedly denied. The scandal toppled longtime coach Joe Paterno, who trustees say didn’t do enough to report abuse allegations, and also resulted in criminal charges against two administrators.
Sandusky has come to trial very fast, and jury selection proceeded quickly, said Widener Law School professor Wes Oliver, who is not involved with the Sandusky case but has followed it closely.
Cleland’s rulings to turn down a string of defense attempts to delay the trial on grounds that there was not enough preparation time do not constitute the sort of issue that would normally be likely grounds for reversal on appeal, Oliver said.
“Stylistically, temperamentally, he’s ideal for this case, no question about it,” Oliver said.
Veteran Philadelphia defense attorney Michael Engle, who has followed accounts of the case, said the high court was wise to choose someone with what he calls a no-nonsense approach.
“It’s going to keep everyone on track here,” Engle said. “I mean, this case could turn into a circus if it was not handled appropriately.”
This is the third time in recent years the senior judge from McKean County – a rural area in northwestern Pennsylvania known for hunting and fishing and as the birthplace of the Zippo lighter – has been issued a critical assignment within Pennsylvania’s justice system.
He was appointed to the state Superior Court – an appellate court – by then-Gov. Ed Rendell and reappointed by the Supreme Court. In the aftermath of the notorious “kids for cash” juvenile justice scandal in the Wilkes-Barre area, the high court turned to Cleland again, to chair a commission that investigated and produced a report on judicial corruption two years ago.
The scandal resulted in the conviction of two county judges who prosecutors said took kickbacks in exchange for sending young offenders to certain for-profit juvenile detention facilities. In its aftermath, the state Supreme Court appointed the special commission and eventually threw out thousands of juvenile convictions.
Cleland graduated from Denison University in Ohio and from George Washington University’s law school, clerked for a Pittsburgh federal judge, and spent a decade in private practice before joining the bench in McKean County in 1984. He has served on the state Juvenile Court Judges’ Commission, is married, and has two children and two grandchildren.
In his home community, along the New York line east of Erie, Cleland has a stellar reputation, said Anthony V. Clarke, a lawyer who for many years has practiced in front of him.
It’s not likely that the Sandusky proceedings will present something that Cleland has not seen before, Clarke said.
“He’s just an incredibly thoughtful man,” he said. “Sandusky’s going to get a fair trial. Whether he’s found guilty or not, I have no idea, but it won’t be because he didn’t get a fair trial.”
Cleland has given the defense some pretrial wins, letting Sandusky out of jail on house arrest and permitting jurors to be chosen from the State College area, home to Penn State. But where another judge might have been willing to go along with the slower pretrial pace sought by Sandusky’s lawyers, Cleland said explicitly he was determined to get the case to trial quickly, and he accomplished that goal.
He decided alleged victims will not be allowed to testify using pseudonyms, barred reporters from tweets and other electronic transmissions from the courtroom during trial, and refereed a seemingly endless series of discovery disputes between the prosecution and defense.
When he first met with prospective jurors Tuesday morning, the gray-haired Cleland appeared without his judicial robes and exhibited folksy charm. In court sessions, he has appeared friendly and determined without coming across as stern or austere.
“I am a judge up in Kane in McKean County,” he told them. “It is the icebox of Pennsylvania, and the local wolves are no longer there.”
He gave them a quick primer on the jury system, going back to medieval England, and told them he wasn’t naive, that he knew many of them would rather not be there.
“It could be you have more important responsibilities than being here for this trial, but you’re going to have a hard time explaining to me what they are,” Cleland said.
Ellis, the dismissed juror, said the talk made a strong impression on him.
“It gives you a sense that what you are doing is really an important part of the democracy,” he said.