Courtrooms are in many ways public theaters. Parties come to court to resolve disputes, but there's another aspect to their work. They also show how the power of the state is appropriately used. When the conflicting parties are the state and a criminal defendant, courts explain why punishment is just.
In Bellefonte, Pa., on Tuesday we saw just that public function at work in Jerry Sandusky's sentencing hearing. The practical effect of any sentence Judge John Cleland could have handed down was not in doubt. It was clear going into this hearing that Sandusky would get life.
The sentencing hearing was thus an opportunity for society to express its outrage at the crime committed, for the defendant to respond to the public, and for the judge to explain the sentence.
Prosecutor Joe McGettigen and three of the victims very powerfully described the harm Sandusky inflicted. McGettigen spoke in a measured way, noting that Sandusky's roles at Penn State and with the Second Mile charity provided a cloak for his real goal of molesting children.
The victims who spoke were all clearly emotional, but were measured in their combination of anger and sadness. Their impact was profound, but not in a way that could have affected the sentence. In some ways their statements had a more profound meaning than adding five, 10, or even 100 years to this life sentence. This forum provided them an opportunity to tell their abuser, with the support of the community and the apparatus of the state, how his crimes affected them. This was a vehicle for them to express their outrage.
This was also an opportunity for Sandusky to respond to the community's condemnation. His rambling remarks, however, appeared to be an unsuccessful effort by an emotionally unstable man to preserve his legacy. At one point Sandusky stated, "I've been kissed by dogs. I've been bitten by dogs." At another point he invoked both the words of Martin Luther King Jr., and the words of Scripture. "I've been to the mountain top," he said. "I've seen the valley of the shadow of death." At other times, he seemed to be spouting poetry about prison life.
Judge Cleland's remarks quite appropriately explained society's reasons for sentencing Sandusky as he did. His sentence needed to protect the community, reflect the gravity of the crimes, the defendant's hope for rehabilitation, and the effect of the crimes on the community. As expected, his sentence demonstrated his interest in appearing measured and thoughtful even in punishing a serious offender. Even speaking about a sentence of dozens of years for a 68 year old man was nonsensical, he noted, observing that there is "no place in the law for sentences to be an instrument of vengeance."
But Cleland needed to express the community's outrage, which he did masterfully. He noted that Sandusky betrayed those who trusted him, that his crimes were an "assault to their psyches and souls."
The entire proceeding struck exactly the right tone. Unlike the post-verdict celebration, Tuesday’s sentencing appropriately reflected the outrage of the victims and the community and left the impression that the legal process is one of logic and reason, not passion and vengeance.
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