Judge handling ex-coach’s appeal leaves criminal case

HARRISBURG (AP) — The judge who has presided over Jerry Sandusky’s criminal case for five years issued a sternly worded order on Friday removing himself from the former Penn State assistant coach’s appeal.

Judge John Cleland said he was taking himself off the case because Sandusky’s lawyers have raised objections to Cleland’s role in a December 2011 meeting in a hotel the night before Sandusky waived a preliminary hearing.

“The defendant’s attorneys have impugned the competence and integrity of essentially everyone associated with the grand jury’s investigation into the defendant’s conduct, the defendant’s trial and conviction, and these post-conviction proceedings,” Cleland wrote. “Now they have chosen to impugn the integrity of the court itself.”

Cleland said the accusations against attorneys, judges, jurors, investigators and victims were outside the bounds of the legal profession and should be reviewed by the state board that handles matters of lawyer discipline. Sandusky’s appeals lawyer, Al Lindsay, declined to comment, as did a spokesman for the state attorney general’s office.

Sandusky, 72, was convicted in 2012 of 45 counts of child sexual abuse and is serving up to 60 years in prison. He has previously lost a round of appeals to the state Superior and Supreme courts and is currently seeking a new trial under the state’s Post-Conviction Relief Act, which is limited to claims of constitutional violations, newly discovered evidence or ineffective counsel. His appeal involves all three types of claims.

At issue is a meeting held at the Hilton Garden Inn in State College the night of Dec. 12, 2011. It was attended by Cleland, Sandusky lawyer Joe Amendola, state prosecutors Joe McGettigan and Jonelle Eshbach, and District Judge Robert Scott, who had been appointed to preside at the preliminary hearing scheduled for the next day.

In an account he issued in May, Cleland wrote that his appointment to handle the matter as a common pleas court judge, made after all the Centre County jurists had recused themselves, included administrative oversight for the site of the preliminary hearing. He said he was having dinner in the hotel when Amendola and prosecutors asked to meet with him and Scott.

It surprised him, Cleland wrote, to find out the topic was an agreement to waive the hearing if prosecutors would not seek higher bail if more charges were filed. Sandusky did waive the hearing, which he now argues was a mistake because his lawyers lost a chance to pin down witnesses and learn details about their version of events.

Cleland said neither he nor Scott had any role in negotiating the agreement made between Amendola and the prosecutors.

Amendola has recently testified that he proposed the deal to McGettigan to keep his client out of jail and that “it was explained” to Cleland and Scott rather than submitted to them.

Cleland pointedly objected to a characterization by Sandusky’s lawyers in a recent filing that it was “an off-the-record night time meeting” and that Sandusky’s absence from the hotel conference violated his due process rights.

“Counsel has argued not only that the meeting between the lawyers and Judge Scott and me was unethical, but has also cast it in tones that would lead one to believe it was somehow sinister,” Cleland wrote.

He also said, in a footnote, that he’s studied the 34 issues Sandusky has raised and concluded that “no grounds raised in the petition merit relief.”

His order asks court officials to request another judge be appointed to replace him.

Copyright 2016 The Associated Press.