On the eve of the child sex abuse trial of former Pennsylvania State University coach Jerry Sandusky, the mood in this small town of historical buildings and quiet streets can be succinctly summed up: Let’s get this behind us.
Area residents said they wanted the 68-year-old retired football assistant coach to get a fair trial on 52 counts of abusing children as a way to close the matter. Sandusky has pleaded not guilty and could face a prison sentence of more than 500 years if convicted on all charges.
“Obviously, the mood of the area is to put this chapter behind us as quickly as possible,” said Steve Dershem, chairman of the Centre County Board of Commissioners.
Along Bellefonte’s main street lined with 19th-century brick buildings, Shawn Harbaugh, the assistant manager of a Subway sandwich shop, said some residents had been too swift to rush to judgment in the high-profile case.
“I want him to get a fair trial and not have people go all crazy about it,” Harbaugh, 33, said. “It’s innocent until proven guilty in our system.”
Bellefonte is about 16km northeast of State College where the Penn State campus is located and where some of the abuse was alleged to have taken place.
Prosecutors allege Sandusky molested 10 boys over a 15-year period. The explosive charges damaged Penn State’s reputation and led to the firing of university president Graham Spanier and revered head coach Joe Paterno in November last year.
The Pennsylvania state Supreme Court rejected a last-ditch attempt to delay the trial on Monday. The ruling meant the case was to go forward with jury selection yesterday, with the scheduled trial start date on Monday next week.
Local residents worry about the crush of traffic and wave of reporters that the trial is bringing to the town of 6,200 people nestled among hills and farms in central Pennsylvania.
Dershem said more than 30 television news vans were expected for the trial, creating congestion in Bellefonte’s downtown, which is on the US National Register of Historic Places.
Some courthouse functions also have been moved to Penn State’s Dickinson School of Law because of the trial, he said.
Gary Hoover, executive director of the Bellefonte Intervalley Area Chamber of Commerce, said: “Everybody is eager to get it over with, certainly.”
Asked if residents had become more alert to possible child molestation because of the Sandusky case, he said: “This is pretty much an anomaly. Folks are pretty wary of going overboard. It’s going to heighten your awareness, certainly.”