In the whacky world of convicted pedophile, Jerry Sandusky, this week presented him the opportunity to again advance his conspiracy theory and claims that he did nothing wrong. He saw his sentencing as a chance to tell the judge and the rest of us that he was really a humanitarian who just loved throwing young boys in the air and playing with water balloons.
Sandusky’s name will forever be synonymous with the word, pedophile. The drama that unfolded in a Pennsylvania courtroom this week only helped to underscore that. In the face of passionate statements from his victims, describing the impact his conduct has had, Sandusky added to his exploitation of them by his bizarre statements. I understand the position of a defendant who intends to appeal and thus does not want to make any admission at his sentencing that could be used against him if he succeeds in obtaining a retrial. The right thing to do in that circumstance is to stand silent at sentencing. This guy not only set the standard for dastardly pedophilia, but now becomes the poster child for recalcitrant defendants.
There are two major components of the sentencing hearing in criminal cases. The first is the victim impact statement. Victims in this state have a constitutional right to be part of the sentencing process. They have the right to receive notice of court hearings and to appear at sentencing and address the court. For so many damaged by the callous crimes of another, the opportunity to stand and address their tormentor, face to face, is therapeutic. More importantly, the sentencing court gains greater insight of the harm the offender has caused, an important factor to be considered in sentencing.
Art. I, section 8b of the Connecticut Constitution codifies all these rights. In addition, the legislature has created the Office of Victim Services (Sec. 54-220 Conn. Gen. Stat.) with victim advocates associated with each court house to help these people through the process.
The second major component of sentencing is the offender’s right of allocution; that is, to address the court. Judges pay heed to expressions of remorse and acceptance of responsibility. In the federal criminal courts acceptance of responsibility earns offenders up to three levels in reduction of the offense severity under the federal sentencing Guidelines, which can often translate into months and possibly years less incarceration.
In Sandusky’s case these important components stood in stark contrast to one another. The victims each described what the effect of his abuse has been and continues to be in their lives. Each of them became more than just a victim described with a number (victim #1, etc.); they became real, damaged human beings. While we all abhor sexual abuse as an abstract concept, it becomes much more than abstract when the victims of abuse bravely stand in public and tell us of their inner suffering.
There is a right and a wrong way for defense lawyers to approach sentencing. For the defendant who has pleaded guilty it is a time to make amends. Expressions of remorse and affirmative actions to demonstrate a sincere desire to reform have an impact. Offering reports of psychiatric evaluations with recommendations for treatment, accompanied by treatment proposals, either during incarceration or upon release, are important considerations.
If an appeal is planned after a guilty verdict, it is best to have the client stand silent. The lawyer should focus on the past character of the defendant, through character letters or witnesses, in the hope of blunting in some respect the impact of the offender’s conduct and the victim’s statements.
Sandusky was probably getting that 30-60 year sentence no matter what he did. But his boorish conduct only served to condemn him forever in the court of public opinion.