BELLEFONTE, Pa – The child sex-abuse case against former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky shifts Tuesday to Bellefonte, Pa. -- 10 miles from the university's campus -- as a veteran Philadelphia prosecutor duels with a local attorney in a preliminary hearing that could shape public opinion and provide setbacks for both sides.
State officials describe preparations for bringing the big-time case to the central Pennsylvania town, population 6,400, as a once-in-a-lifetime event. "It's our O.J. trial," says James Koval, spokesman for the Pennsylvania state court system.
Sandusky is charged with sexually assaulting 10 boys over a 15-year period, with most of the allegations detailed in a grand-jury report last month. Sandusky has maintained his innocence.
The resulting scandal led to the ouster of legendary football coach Joe Paterno and university president Graham Spanier.
The western Pennsylvania judge presiding over the case, Robert E. Scott, was assigned after Centre County judges recused themselves because they said they had roles at The Second Mile, a charity founded in 1977. The grand-jury report said Sandusky recruited victims at the charity. Scott is from Westmoreland County, in the western part of the state.
The hearing is unusual because Pennsylvania -- like one other state, Connecticut -- does not let grand juries indict suspects. Instead, the prosecutors must convince a judge at a preliminary hearing that the case is worth taking to trial.
The prosecution, however, does not need to persuade Scott of Sandusky's guilt. It must only present enough evidence to persuade the judge that the case should go to trial. But, if the prosecution holds back too much, the judge could simply dismiss the case.
"The bar is low, but the risk is high if they fail," says Wesley Oliver, a professor at the Widener College of Law in Harrisburg, Pa. "For that reason, what you'll see is almost a like full trial proceeding."
For the first time Tuesday, several alleged victims are expected to testify and confront Sandusky, who retired in 1999 after serving as top defensive coach to Paterno for decades. Lawyers for the alleged victims say their clients want to take the stand.
"My client is ready to testify," says Jeffrey P. Fritz, who represents one of the eight alleged victims in the grand jury's report.
Also expected to testify is the state's key witness, assistant Penn State coach Mike McQueary, who, according to the grand-jury report, said he saw Sandusky rape a young boy in a Penn State shower in 2002 and relayed that to athletic director Tim Curley and a campus vice president, Gary Schultz.
Curley and Schultz, who both have left their posts, were charged with lying to the grand jury about what McQueary told them about the 2002 alleged assault. Curley and Schultz face a similar hearing Dec. 16 in Harrisburg. Both men have denied the charges through their attorneys.
Sandusky and his wife Dottie have both declared the 67-year-old former coach's innocence.
Sandusky's lawyer, Joseph Amendola of State College, Pa., said he fully expected the case to go to trial.
"We anticipate many of the charges will be held for court, not because Jerry is guilty, but only because this is a probable-cause proceeding at which credibility is not in play," he said.