Judge in Sandusky case Penn State remains a community man in Pennsylvania
KANE, Pa. — Two days after impaneling a jury in the Jerry Sandusky child sex-abuse trial, Judge John M. Cleland returned to his high school alma mater in this rural stretch of northwest Pennsylvania to address the graduating class.
“It’s an honor every time you’re asked. I’m not going to miss it,” he told his hometown newspaper, the Kane Republican.
The last-minute trip — mere days before the scheduled start Monday of one of Pennsylvania’s most closely watched legal proceedings — struck some awaiting developments in Centre County as an odd choice.
But among friends and colleagues, his appearance Friday at Kane Area High School demonstrated the plainspoken modesty and the commitment to his community that have come to define the 64-year-old jurist during his decades-long career on the bench.
The son of backcountry physicians, Cleland still lives on a horse farm in the town of 4,000 where he grew up. And colleagues say he has consistently shown a level head and an unwavering fairness — from his days handling small local disputes in his McKean County court to his role, years later, heading an investigative panel into the Luzerne County cash-for-kids scandal that eventually sent two fellow judges to jail.
“He’s really doing nothing more than he’s always done, whether it was as a law clerk, a neighbor, a lawyer, or a judge,” said Pittsburgh lawyer Art Stroyd, who worked as a law clerk alongside Cleland when both were launching their legal careers in the ‘70s. “He’s always been the same calm, deliberate, and studied individual. Just now, there are a whole lot of people watching.”
In the coming weeks, Cleland faces the challenge of maintaining decorum in a trial that has become a lightning rod for conflicting emotions. Jerry Sandusky’s arrest last year on 52 counts of child sexual abuse tore rifts in the Penn State community that have yet to fully heal.
Victim advocates, political candidates, and even a few people critical of what they see as a rush to judge Sandusky have all seized on the case in hopes of advancing their own causes.
Cleland entered the fray two weeks after Sandusky’s arrest, appointed to oversee the trial after all of Centre County’s judges recused themselves because of ties to Penn State, Sandusky, or the charity through which he met his accusers. At the time, the state office that administers Pennsylvania’s courts said he had no known connections to the defendant or Penn State — which isn’t entirely true.
His wife, Julie, served for 15 years on a board that advised the university on its use of its public radio and television stations. Court officials later deemed those ties inconsequential.
In the six months since, Cleland has managed to balance the case’s conflicting interests while keeping the proceedings moving, the tone light, and the focus on the charges at hand.
“I am a judge up in Kane in McKean County,” he told potential jurors at the start of jury selection last week. “It is the icebox of Pennsylvania, and the local wolves are no longer there.”
Early on, Cleland rebuffed prosecutors’ claims that Sandusky, under home confinement, violated his bail and endangered children by taking his dogs on the back deck of his home yards from an elementary school.
“No evidence whatsoever” existed to justify their concern, he said in a February order.
He turned down repeated requests from Sandusky’s defense for delays.
And as attorney rhetoric on both sides reached the histrionic — with references to Sandusky’s Second Mile charity as a “victim factory” and three-hour news conferences on the courthouse steps — he issued a gag order to stanch the flow of pretrial publicity.
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