The family of the late Joe Paterno, head football coach at Penn State University until its Board of Trustees fired him over the Jerry Sandusky child rape scandal, is on a media blitz. The Chicago Tribune reports today that:
[The Paterno family] released an independent review of the university’s Freeh report this morning that claims the report is “deeply flawed” and an unfair “rush to injustice.”
The 238-page review, conducted by former Pennsylvania Governor and U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh and a team of others, says the Freeh report is “full of errors, unsupported personal opinions, improper allegations and biased assertions.”
Freeh found that Paterno and other university leaders concealed allegations of child sex abuse against Jerry Sandusky to avoid bad publicity. But the Paterno’s family review says the legendary coach was fooled by a master manipulator and “did not know or even believe in the possibility, that Sandusky was capable of sexually assaulting young boys.”
Taking a page from the playbook of convicted murderer and former Bolingbrook, Illinois police officer Drew Peterson, the Paternos will appear on Katie Couric’s afternoon talk show this week, and I have little doubt other media outlets will line up to fête them. Lord knows the media loves a celebrity criminal, and with JoePa being dead, well, his poor bereaved widow and children will do nicely.
I don’t plan to read the Thornburgh report, nor do I plan to watch the Paterno clan’s television circus.
Please understand, this isn’t about not wanting to hear both sides of the story. The pursuit of the truth is the single most important aspect of the criminal justice system. More important, even, than our concern for the victims and their families. I know that sounds harsh, but here in Illinois we’ve had more than our share of instances where concern for the victims – completely understandable, of course – led to horribly wrong results. So often, in fact, that in January 2000, then-Gov. George Ryan (a Republican) ordered a moratorium on executions here:
Governor Ryan noted that while he still believes the death penalty is a proper societal response for crimes that shock sensibility, he believes Illinois residents are troubled by the persistent problems in the administration of capital punishment in Illinois. Since the death penalty was reinstated in Illinois in 1977, 12 Death Row inmates have been executed while 13 have been exonerated.
“How do you prevent another Anthony Porter – another innocent man or woman from paying the ultimate penalty for a crime he or she did not commit?” Governor Ryan said referring to the former inmate whose execution was stayed by the Illinois Supreme Court after new evidence emerged clearing him of the capital offense. “Today, I cannot answer that question.”
And, of course, every time the state imprisons the wrong person, that means the real perpetrator goes free. So the truth-seeking function is more than just a means of protecting innocent people who might be wrongly accused of a crime; it serves the equally important function of not allowing the guilty party to escape punishment.
But here’s the thing. There has to be a better way to get at the truth than to give an audience to wealthy, entitled, powerful individuals just because they can buy it. The victims of Jerry Sandusky’s crimes weren’t able to hire a former Governor and Attorney General – and, no doubt, an army of young lawyers – to cobble together a 238-page report explaining their side of the story. While the university hired former FBI Director Louis Freeh to conduct an investigation and to prepare the report the Paternos now challenge, the victims themselves were left to suffer the consequences of Sandusky’s abuse – and, according to Mr. Freeh, the “total disregard for [their] safety and welfare … by the most senior leaders at Penn State” – on their own.
Likewise, the hundreds of innocent people wrongly convicted nationwide, including many who sat on death row awaiting execution for crimes they did not commit, never had the luxury of hiring Dick Thornburgh to attack their accusers, nor did they or their families get to do the television talk show circuit, perfectly coiffed and dressed to the nines, while they looked earnestly into the cameras and said: Hey, look at us. We’re rich. We’re white. We’re famous. We can’t be the bad guys.
So, you’ll pardon me if I don’t really care to listen to what the Paterno clan and their army of lawyers and publicists have to say.
Ultimately, I want to know the truth about what happened at Penn State. The whole truth, and nothing but the truth. No matter what that means for Joe Paterno, his family, or the university. But I’m not interested in playing this game where we indulge the rich and powerful, we give them airtime and let them influence public opinion, while the poor rot in jail and nobody cares whether they’re guilty or innocent.