I often refer to the Penn State/Sandusky Scandal as the Duke Lacrosse case on steroids. My last presentation in San Diego outlined the key facts that demonstrate this parallel. However, after watching ESPN's piece on the Richard Jewell case, similar parallels exist.
The Jewell case occurred on July 27, 1996 at the Atlanta Olympics when the security guard caught sight of a suspicious package and began clearing the area. Before all could be evacuated, the bomb exploded, killing two and injuring over 100 people. Had Jewell not spotted the package and taken action, the 1996 Atlanta Olympics would be remembered for an act of terrorism that killed hundreds.
Richard Jewell was lauded as a hero immediately after it was learned that he discovered the bomb and cleared that area. That lasted three days.
Similarly, in the Sandusky case, the Patriot News wrote an article on Saturday, November 5th, 2011, stating that Joe Paterno was not a suspect in the case and had acted appropriately. That lasted three days.
By Monday morning, the entire dynamic changed when Pennsylvania State Police Commissioner Frank Noonan, who was under fire for the three year Sandusky investigation, proclaimed that Paterno had a "moral responsibility" to call police. Noonan's comments changed the entire dynamic as the press smelled blood in the water and went on the attack, contributing to the firing of Paterno and actively inciting a riot on PSU's campus.
Bungled Law Enforcement Investigations
The FBI, at the time under the direction of Louis Freeh, leaked Richard Jewell's name as a suspect in the case -- based on a tip received from a former employer of Jewell's -- Piedmont College. To make matters worse, the FBI arrived at the apartment shared by Jewell and his mother in the plain sight of the media -- rather than calling Jewell to a meeting at FBI headquarters. The FBI kept Jewell under surveillance for 88 days before finally clearing him.
The Sandusky investigation could be summed up as a comedy of errors. While all of the victims were plucked from The Second Mile charity, founded by Sandusky, the OAG investigators and police didn't get a warrant for the charity's participant records until two years into the investigation. At the trial, the investigator and prosecutor stated that they had difficulty finding victims because Penn State was uncooperative. The facts told an entirely different story, as the police similarly did not arrive on PSU's campus until about two years into the investigation. But rather than clear PSU officials, who actually put a stop to Sandusky's abuse on campus in 2001, they charged them with failure to report (initially) and then child endangerment.
Media Leads Initial Attacks
In the Jewell case, the Atlanta Journal Constitution (AJC) led the reporting on the incident and was the first to proclaim Jewell was a suspect. The headline read: "FBI suspects 'hero' guard may have planted bomb." Because it was the olympic games, this became a world-wide story. The bell had been rung and now couldn't be unrung.
Media Misrepresents the FactsThe AJC's reporting repeated the FBI's assessment fit the profile of a "lone bomber" and a "hero wannabe," which was damning to the security guard. The public was led to believe that Jewell was, in fact, the bomber and not just a suspect. Some speculated that the AJC wanted to calm the public's fears that the bomber would strike again, thus were under immense pressure to solve the case quickly.
In Harrisburg, the PN similarly took accusations from the grand jury presentment - a one-sided prosecutorial document - and presented them as facts. A 10 year old boy was raped. No one reported the incident. Many boys were abused as a result of PSU's inaction. Paterno had a moral obligation to do more. The PN's motivation appeared to be run with the story that would sell the most newspapers -- not the story that was supported by the facts.
Innocent Men Swarmed
Throngs of media stood outside the apartment of Richard Jewell and his mother for the days following the announcement of Jewell as a suspect. Jewell would have to wade through the mass of reporters on his way to and from work, with the only intention of doing his job as a security guard. Richard and his mother were prisoners in their own home.
A similar situation took place outside Paterno's home on McKee Street. The reporters set up camp there and swarmed Paterno whenever he went to and from work. Meanwhile, across town, few if any media were outside Sandusky's home. Sandusky came and went without media attention, working out at a local gym with his wife Dottie.
Voices From The Past Are Revived
Once the initial story died down, the AJC had to find ways to keep feeding the public's thirst for information so they dug around in his past. They went to previous employers and coworkers who would confirm that Jewell sought the limelight, wanted to be the hero, was in the militia, and other stories that would be used to tear down Jewell's character.
In Paterno's case, the media found a new heroine in a former PSU administrator named Vicky Triponey. Triponey had her own ideas about how discipline at Penn State should be handled and locked horns with Paterno over the discipline of football players involved in an off-campus fight. The faculty ended up siding with Paterno, not because he was influential at PSU, but because by most accounts, Triponey was a tyrant. While employed at the University of Connecticut, she took steps to remove students rights and repeated the practice when she arrived at PSU. A student run publication, Safeguard Old State, ran a series of articles called Triponey's "Timeline of Terror, outlining her anti-student policies at UConn and PSU.
A Lot of People Were Fooled - And Want to Stay Fooled.
The media created the hysteria around the Jewell case and everyone believed Jewell was the bomber. It wasn't until 88 days later -- after Jewell had passed lie detector tests -- that the FBI had cleared him and Jewell was able to call out the media for the damage they had done. However, despite winning several lawsuits, Jewell was unable to "unring the bell." Jewell died in 2007 -- two years after Eric Robert Rudolph confessed to committing the bombings. Jewell's wife said she still received phone calls from people claiming that Jewell was still the bomber.
In the Sandusky case, the media and Louis Freeh combined to create a false narrative that Paterno and PSU officials were aware of a serial pedophile in their midst for decades and failed to act. It wasn't until former FBI-profiler, James Clemente, released his report in February 2013, that people began to realize that the statements about Paterno may not be true. Later that summer, lead prosecutor Frank Fina would proclaim that he found no evidence of Paterno's involvement in a cover-up. However, in Paterno's case, the media ignored this information and simply refused to correct the record.
The Paterno case is far from over. There is a pending trial for PSU officials, a pending lawsuit versus the NCAA (by the family) and two ongoing investigations that may ultimately show that Paterno and PSU were wrongfully blamed for enabling Sandusky's crimes.
Unlike the Jewell case, the bell for Joe Paterno can be "un-rung."