The Most Hated Man in America: Jerry Sandusky and the Rush to Judgment. By Mark Pendergrast. Mechanicsburg, PA: Sunberry Press, Inc. ISBN 1-62006-765-9. 391 pp. Paperback, $19.95.
Jerry Sandusky is a monster, a serial pedophile!” is so deeply entrenched in the American psyche that it is virtually impossible to mention another view without arousing contempt or condescending pity. The only way to see the case through a fresh set of eyes would be a work by someone detached from all things Pennsylvania—a credentialed, disinterested investigator with a flair for thorough, balanced research and with an established track record of even-tempered integrity.
Mark Pendergrast has achieved that niche with The Most Hated Man in America: Jerry Sandusky and the Rush to Judgment, probably the most even-handed and thoroughly documented volume on the topic.
While much rhetoric and probing of the past six years took sides on the guilt or innocence of the Penn State University (PSU) football program vis-à-vis Sandusky’s antics, virtually all presumed his guilt. Pendergrast’s central focus is on the integrity of the case itself. From the earliest episodes in question through the police investigations and the trial, Pendergrast identifies each of the ten primary witnesses in the prosecution’s case and examines the development of their claims.
At the outset, he focuses on a 2000 or 2001 episode of alleged abuse that took place in a shower. It was the largest source of national outrage and almost surely the incident most familiar to the public. Pendergrast affirms (as some others have) that the episode was grossly embellished by the grand jury presentment’s author. Eyewitness Mike McQueary actually denied seeing any sexual contact between Sandusky and his alleged victim; in his first recounting, the night of the shower, he never articulated seeing any specific behavior—only hearing slapping sounds that he inferred were sexual. Both Sandusky and self-identified Victim 2 have independently denied sexual behavior that night and attributed the sounds to towel-slapping or slap-boxing. (The jury ultimately acquitted Sandusky of that rape charge.)
Contemporary investigation of a 1998 episode cleared Sandusky of wrongdoing based on firm testimony from the youth involved that nothing sexual had occurred. Pendergrast goes on to reveal conclusive evidence that the janitor in another alleged shower incident witnessed a perpetrator who was not in fact Sandusky.
Researching the background and police interviews of the remaining eight young men—not boys—who testified against Sandusky in the trial, Pendergrast verifies that many were recruited by police, initially denied any abuse, and relented only after being subjected to repressed-memory therapy and/or leading police interviews. The only two designated victims at trial who came forward on their own did so in response to the post-indictment appeal for more victims—by which time, Pendergrast suggests, financial motive may have become a factor. The book demonstrates internal contradictions in their accounts and other reasons to cast doubt on witness credibility in those cases.
Pendergrast chronicles the trial’s daily proceedings in detail, noting Sandusky’s strikingly naive choice of a small-town lawyer as his defense counsel, the ambient presumption of guilt in the jury pool, the willingness of the prosecution to present—and of the judge to accept—hearsay testimony for the janitor episode after the original witness had said in a taped police interview that Sandusky was not the perpetrator he saw.
In a case devoid of any physical evidence, Pendergrast’s work boldly goes where almost no one has gone before—to suggest the fundamental innocence of Sandusky in the entire case.
Unlike attorney Louis Freeh, who presumed the guilt of both Sandusky and the PSU athletic staff—and was toasted and paid over $6 million by the university trustees for his conclusions favoring their previous firings of two PSU leaders—Pendergrast takes us into adventurous territory at financial and reputational risk. Having followed the case closely and read scores of works on all sides of the issue, I find no one who has better prepared his case. Accept or reject the thesis of The Most Hated Man in America, but do not take it lightly. Pendergrast has done meticulous background work on every major player in the unfolding drama. And he provides material background for answering any question one may pose to him.
If Pendergrast has a dog in the fight, it is his rejection of repressed memory therapy, whose techniques, along with manipulative and misleading interview strategies by police, were used extensively in the counselling of several of the designated victims. This is his area of expertise (see his books Memory Warp and The Repressed Memory Epidemic), and when its use is in doubt in particular instances, he volunteers that truth. He concedes the sincerity of several of the witnesses while questioning the veracity of their claims.
The final chapters offer rarely published perspectives from Sandusky himself on the case and his personal experiences and conclusions from it. Noteworthy are the contrasts between the dossiers of nearly all convicted pedophiles and that of Sandusky—healthy, intimate marriage; immaculate police record into his fifties; drug-, alcohol-, and pornography-free lifestyle; a testosterone level too low to beget biological children of his own; a vocational schedule too preoccupied for the alleged innumerable trysts as claimed against him; unwavering insistence on his innocence; and repugnance toward sex crimes.
A rebuttal of the book’s points and thesis will not be successful on a pedestrian level—the only level that has emerged so far. It should be required reading for courses in ethics and jurisprudence in every law school in America. In revealing the truth in the case, it may be well ahead of its time.
The Most Hated Man in America reminds us that the purpose of police investigation must be open-minded discovery of both incriminating and exculpatory facts and not the building of testimony toward presupposed guilt. Ethically sound prosecution has no place for redacting fictional grand jury testimony, for leaking of sensational details to the media before indictment, or for padding of witness testimony with hearsay and discredited therapy. It indicts the media’s impulsive urge to publish sensational scenarios before analytical research of facts has been engaged—at risk to the reputations and very lives of innocent people, whatever the outcome. And as a cautionary word about societal prejudgment (see Richard Jewell, Duke Lacrosse, McMartin Preschool, and Lindy Chamberlain cases), it is an urgent appeal to sustain the under-practiced principle of innocent until proven guilty.