I took this picture on Friday night. Tweeted it to a public and media that were growing increasingly frantic about any hint as to whether a jury would make its decision or deliberate deeper into the weekend.
The picture displays Jerry Sandusky leaving his house for what would be the last time,a guilty verdict on forty-five counts announced less than an hour later ensuring the man would spend the rest of his life in prison far away from the peaceful, woodsy neighborhood he’d lived in for the last several years. I wrote a news story about it for The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Everything happened so fast at the house. Silence and stillness engulfed the front yard. Then a door flew open. And I’ll remember the way Sandusky plodded slowly out of his house with so little emotion and a face so blank that you could only surmise he was scared to death for the upcoming announcement of his fate. It was a rush to photograph the scene, to focus on the final moments of freedom for this evil man.
Outside the frame, three of Sandusky’s adopted children, Kara, Jon and Jeff, walked to different cars. I barely glanced in their direction, but I was thinking a lot about them.
Every journalist has heard of the gravedigger story. I don’t remember any exact passages, but I know everything about it.
Multiple professors explained to me that a media circus congregated in Washington D.C. in the days after JFK died. Hundreds of people with notepads, cameras and microphones were coming away with the same scene, the same stories, everyone except a guy named Jimmy Breslin.
He eschewed the pack and went early to Arlington National Cemetery. He spent time with the guy digging JFK’s grave. He wrote a story no one else had.
The Sandusky Trial was a media circus. That was obvious. Talking heads uttered the phrase “media circus” as many times as the phrase “Sandusky Trial” over the past two weeks. CNN, The New York Times, Fox News, ESPN, Yahoo – everyone came for the proceedings.
For two weeks, those of us who piled into the courthouse and the annex listened to graphic testimony from eight victims and two others with knowledge of Sandusky’s sexual abuse. As a journalist, you have to focus on the facts, take all of it in. You have to forget that you’re a person with your own opinions, emotions and feelings and take copious notes, compiling them into a story to inform the public. You have to do a job.
I’m not trying to make a journalist’s job seem different or noble. It’s not at all. People who have actual important jobs, i.e. doctors, police officers, firemen etc., have to separate their human feelings from their professional obligations and do so under true duress.
But for my job last Friday, for the benefit of the Post-Gazette, I was particularly focused on writing and reporting on something memorable. I was in the zone. I wanted to go to the Sandusky house. I wanted to see someone digging a freaking a grave.
I arrived to the Sandusky house a little before five, half-expecting a throng waiting in the street. Boom. Almost no one had gathered, scared off by fake reports of police lining the streets, I suspect.
Two cameramen from a national news network were the only other journalists there. Randy and Tom had been stationed outside the house all week, arriving at 6 a.m. and leaving whenever Sandusky returned home after the trial ended, their cameras filming every second during that time.
Two of Sandusky’s next-door neighbors, Paul and Sue, joined Randy and Tom. They sat in lawn chairs under a tall evergreen tree in Paul’s yard. Supposedly, a previous owner of the house had decorated several of the evergreen trees in this neighborhood with lights and ornaments each Christmas. Paul had lived next to the Sandusky’s for eleven years, Sue for fourteen. They each had a sign in their yard for a RAINN, a group that promotes sexual abuse awareness.
I waited with them, thinking Sandusky would leave his house any moment. An officer named Ron Millward had entered the house a little earlier, followed by Tom Smith, Centre County’s director of probation and parole. If you needed a sign for an imminent verdict, here it was. But soon they left the house, without Sandusky, and waited in their cars. We kept waiting, too.
At about six, Jon Sandusky stepped out of the house. Tom and Randy rushed to their cameras. I shot up from my chair. We thought the verdict might be coming, thought Jerry Sandusky would soon follow. It was nothing.
Bo, one of the family dogs, trailed behind him out the door. Jon walked toward the mailbox, passing right next to us. He said hi, opened the lever to check the mail and found nothing. He stopped for a moment before he went back to the house.
Jon likely knew a guilty verdict was coming. He had to accept that his dad was about to become a convicted sexual abuser. He had to accept that a day earlier his own family member accused his dad of sexual abuse.
“Getting a little stir crazy in there,” he said.
He started talking to us about Bo, a purebred St. Bernard. Then he joked that he was going to keep coming out the door as quickly as he could to watch us hop out of our seats.
We were there to document the last moments of his dad’s freedom; ultimately we were spying on the family for our own benefit, and he was as friendly as could be, joking with us, telling us to have a good evening.
Maybe three hours later, the officer Ron Millward and the probation and parole director Tom Smith entered the house again, and this time Jerry Sandusky came out with them. I did my job, took the picture, drove back to the scene at the courthouse and wrote my story, contemplating something Tom mentioned about Jon Sandusky after he walked back into his family’s house earlier that evening. Tom was discussing the business, how you can’t help but be a person with feelings even when you’re not supposed to be.
“The fact that you remember these guys are regular people,” he said. “It’s the worst part about it.”