Bringing Down a Legend: How an “Independent” Grand Jury Ended Joe Paterno’s Career


By Brian Gallini
Entering the 2011 collegiate football season, Joseph Vincent “Joe” Paterno was the longest tenured head football coach in the nation, the winningest coach in Penn State and major college football history, and his current Nittany Lion squad was enjoying another standout season.  That fall, things changed for him almost overnight.
On November 5, 2011, Pennsylvania State Police arrested Jerry Sandusky, an ex-assistant defensive coach to Joe Paterno, for sexually abusing eight boys. The arrest followed what Pennsylvania Attorney General Linda Kelly called a “widereaching grand jury investigation,” the results of which—contained in a grand jury presentment—became publicly available on the same day Sandusky was arrested.  Although the presentment was replete with horrific sexual abuse allegations related specifically to Sandusky, it also included a handful of “facts” relevant to Paterno. In general, the presentment described inappropriate sexual contact between Sandusky and eight young boys.
When describing an incident on March 1, 2002, between Sandusky and “victim 2,” the presentment indicated that a “graduate assistant” (later identified as Mike McQueary) witnessed Sandusky showering with “a naked boy . . . whose age he estimated to be ten years old, with his hands up against the wall, being subjected to anal intercourse by a naked  Sandusky.” The next day, according to the presentment, the graduate assistant “telephoned Paterno and went to Paterno’s home, where he reported what he had seen.” Paterno responded by calling Penn State’s athletic director at his home the next day to report “that the graduate assistant had seen Jerry Sandusky in the Lasch Building showers fondling or doing something of a sexual nature to a young boy.”
A media frenzy erupted immediately after the report came out.  News about the so-called “Penn State scandal” was all over every major newspaper in the nation and occupied time on almost every major network and cable news station for days. Alongside the  understandable public outcry surrounding Sandusky’s horrid alleged behavior lingered some basic questions about Joe Paterno: how much did he know about Sandusky’s conduct and, correspondingly, when did he know it?
On November 7, Pennsylvania Attorney General Linda Kelly clarified that Paterno was not the subject of the state’s criminal investigation into how the school handled the allegations against Sandusky. That, however, did not satisfy the court of public opinion. Sensing the end of his career was perhaps near, and seeking to unilaterally decide the date of his retirement, Paterno announced on the morning of November 9 that he would retire at the end of the 2011 season.
The University’s Board of Trustees ignored Paterno’s announcement and dismissed him, effective immediately, that same evening.
 The University community reacted violently to the news of Paterno’s firing. Paterno tried to calm supporters who had gathered outside his home shortly after news of his firing became public by telling them “we still have things to do.” He was wrong. Just sixty-four days later, Paterno died on January 22, 2012, at the age of eighty-five due to metastatic small cell carcinoma of the lung.
Paterno’s downfall began with the investigative grand jury naming Paterno in the presentment targeted toward Sandusky. But Paterno was denied the opportunity to legally respond—there existed no venue for him to file any kind of response or seek to strike portions of the Sandusky presentment. In federal court and many state courts, strict secrecy rules governing grand jury activity would likely have ensured that Paterno would never have had to respond —publicly or legally—to a presentment issued by an investigating grand jury that investigated someone else.
Secrecy rules aside, federal grand jury targets, defendants, and/or witnesses never have to respond to grand jury presentments because presentments have been disallowed in the federal criminal justice system since 1946.  Federal courts also disallow so-called grand jury reports—documents that, historically speaking, report on matters of public concern or the conduct of public officials.  But a gap in the Supreme Court’s grand jury jurisprudence promotes inconsistency in the treatment of grand jury documents, secrecy rules, and uninvestigated third parties. The Supreme Court’s historic emphasis on the grand jury’s independence is to blame. Indeed, the Court’s long-held characterization of the grand jury as a body “acting independently of either prosecuting attorney or judge” promotes and allows for the extreme position taken by Pennsylvania’s statutory scheme. Pennsylvania continues to authorize both presentments and reports but, in doing so, does not regulate with precision what and who is permissibly included in those documents. Its failure to do so allows the grand jury to name anyone, such as an uninvestigated third party like Paterno, in a presentment or report without correspondingly providing that third party with the ability to defend himself meaningfully. 
Accordingly, this Article argues that the Supreme Court’s current view of the grand jury allowed a Pennsylvania investigative grandjury to needlessly and unfairly include Paterno, practically accusing him of a crime. An important job of the grand jury is to investigate crimes,  but by naming Paterno in the Sandusky presentment it implicitly said that Paterno committed a crime without having gone through the appropriate steps to establish probable cause that he did commit a crime. Any grand jury that names an uninvestigated person in a presentment or report subverts the grand jury’s investigative purpose and abuses the grand jury system. Just as problematic, the Sandusky document immediately became public. Releasing that document to the public undermines the factfinding mission that is central to our jury system. Indeed, allowing the public to view sensitive grand jury documents—untested by a proof beyond a reasonable doubt standard—harms the reputation of any named third party and unduly prejudices the suspect’s potential jury pool.  Finally, it inappropriately allows for a trial by media that can ensnare third parties, like Joe Paterno, who are not the subject of the grand jury’s investigation. Paterno’s involvement may certainly have become public absent his being named in the Sandusky presentment, but a grand jury investigation into someone else—in this case Sandusky—should have no role in that eventuality. It may likewise be the case that what appeared in the Sandusky presentment about Paterno is absolutely true. Indeed, Paterno may well have protected a child molester for a decade for the most selfish of reasons—but his personal guilt is not the point. Paterno’s story simply makes for an outstanding illustration of the Supreme Court’s problematic view of the grand jury as an independent body. The absence of consistent regulation over that body, a byproduct of the Supreme Court’s approach, allowed a grand jury presentment investigating one person to improperly accuse an uninvestigated third party of impropriety.
But at least Sandusky had his day in court. Paterno will not. Paterno is a private third party who was not under investigation and is thus historically not properly included in either the presentment of someone else, or the subject of a separate grand jury report. The Pennsylvania Attorney General’s decision to make the Sandusky presentment public ignores that history and, in doing so, denies to Paterno the opportunity to defend his name, his reputation, or what he did—or did not do—during Sandusky’s tenure on his staff, leading up to Sandusky’s retirement, and following Sandusky’s retirement. Paterno’s inability to do so has nothing to do with the fact that he is dead. Even assuming that Paterno had not died from lung cancer, there exists no meaningful legal proceeding in Pennsylvania that would allow him to distance himself from the grand jury’s investigation into Sandusky. Even if such a proceeding existed, it’s unlikely the public would forget about his inclusion in Sandusky’s investigation.
After all, the public reaction to Sandusky’s acquittal on involuntary deviate sexual intercourse against victim two (the same victim who McQueary allegedly saw in the shower with Sandusky) has hardly cleared Paterno’s name—though it was Paterno’s handling of the story related to victim two that led to his firing. Part of the collective problem, of course, stems from the manner in which the Sandusky presentment was written. Emblazoned with Findings of Fact at the top of the page, the media at large took it as precisely as that—some members of the media even went so far as to assume the document constituted an indictment against Sandusky. Thus, the average reader of the media’s subsequent stories about Sandusky, let alone the average lawyer, likely had no idea about the difference between a “presentment” and an “indictment.” And why would they—the Sandusky presentment was not even labeled as such; the document omitted a title page and announced itself immediately with its “findings of fact” label. The public likely has no idea that those findings were not the product of an adversary proceeding.
The totality of the Sandusky investigation perfectly illustrates why federal grand jury practice has, as discussed above, all but eliminated the grand jury’s presentment and reporting abilities. Its doing so “should not be mourned.”  Federal grand jury practice “properly reflect[s] an unwillingness to allow an ex parte, unaccountable body to inflict damage on reputations and careers.” Several states have followed suit by, for example,  restricting the filing of grand jury reports that single out individuals,  requiring that such reports follow procedural safeguards, or at least providing the named individual with the opportunity to challenge the report’s contents.  But state practice is not constitutionally obligated to follow any particular procedural approach. Accordingly, the more central problem is the perhaps unintended consequence of the Supreme Court’s thematic emphasis on the grand jury being an “independent” body that is not “textually assigned” to anybranch of government.
The idea that the investigative grand jury in Pennsylvania is truly “independent” seems difficult to reconcile with the fact that it cannot operate without either the prosecutor, or a supervising judge. Paterno’s story so compellingly demonstrates these collective problems because of the consequences of the Sandusky investigation to him: (1) he believed he would die without football, and (2) the Sandusky investigative grand jury took football from him—whether intentionally or not. As to the first point, Paterno never had interest in retirement. In an interview for The New York Times in 1997, Paterno, then age seventy, said, “I don’t want to retire. Too many people quit their jobs too early and don’t know what to do with themselves.” CBS sportscaster Brent Musburger said over a decade later in 2008 that his friend, Paterno, was haunted by Bear Bryant’s death. Bryant, of course, was the legendary coach of the Alabama Crimson Tide football team from 1958-82, who retired in 1982 and died from a massive heart attack just twenty-nine days later. Musburger added the following: “[Paterno] is a man that doesn’t fish, doesn’t play golf . . . he has no other interest other than his family and football[.] And he’s just afraid what would happen with the rest of his life if he walks away from it.” Paterno was apparently even more direct with current Nittany Lion, Donovan Smith; Paterno told him “I’m afraid to stop coaching because I’ll die.” Although some contend that Paterno died from a broken heart, others suggest that medical evidence supports the idea that the grief he experienced as a result of the Sandusky investigation and his firing hastened Paterno’s passing. According to a recent study, grief experienced from loss—as in, for example, a job—can increase the risk of a heart attack “21-fold.” One national expert on aging said that in Paterno’s case specifically, his firing could have accelerated his death: “[w]hen you feel that you’ve lost your place in this world, death is never far behind[.]” And, more basically, “coexisting conditions such as high psychological stress, depression and major changes in a life event are all associated with increased mortality.” Regardless of the accuracy of the medical evidence, the point of this Article remains the same: all of this started with an “independent” grand jury investigating Sandusky that named Paterno in a presentment related only to Sandusky. Doing so was gratuitous, superfluous, and denied to Paterno the opportunity to explain what he did, or did not do, about Sandusky’s criminal behavior. Pennsylvania, floating in a sea of other states with differing approaches to grand jury practice, allows the investigative grand jury to issue a presentment, a document long ago described by a New York appellate court as follows:
A presentment is a foul blow. It wins the importance of a judicial document, yet it lacks its principal attributes—the right to answer and to appeal. It accuses but furnishes no forum for a denial. No one knows upon what evidence the findings are based. An indictment may be challenged—even defeated. The presentment is immune. It is like the “hit and run” motorist. Before application can be made to suppress it, it is the subject of public gossip. The damage is done. The injury it may unjustly inflict may never be healed.
I hope they’re not going to judge me on how many games I won or lost . . . I hope they judge me on some other things, the impact we’ve had on people’s lives. Some have been good and, obviously, some have not been so good. But I hope the overall picture is that we have done some good for people.  At the time, of course, no one knew that Penn State would fire Paterno after its Board of Trustees concluded that Paterno exemplified a “failure of leadership” by failing to do more after being told that his former assistant coach anally raped a young boy. Commentators no doubt will continue to debate whether Paterno did, in fact, do “enough” when told about Sandusky. But, while that debate remains unresolved, what is clear is that a grand jury document unrelated to Paterno should not have been the cause of his termination. When the Sandusky grand jury’s Findings of Fact became public, the court of public opinion took that document as precisely that: fact. Problematically, however, grand jury proceedings are not governed by a proof beyond a reasonable doubt standard and, moreover, Paterno was not under investigation. The possibility that a criminally innocent third party could be ensnared by the grand jury investigation of someone else is precisely why the Supreme Court should provide more grand jury regulatory guidance and abandon the modernly inapplicable notion that the grand jury is “independent