Panel Reinstates Conviction of Ex-Penn State President in Sandusky Case

Former Penn State President Graham Spanier leaves the Dauphin County Courthouse in Harrisburg, Pa., in 2017. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

PHILADELPHIA (CN) — The Third Circuit on Tuesday reinstated the child endangerment conviction of Penn State’s former president for his failure to report suspected sexual abuse by former football coach Jerry Sandusky.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Karoline Mehalchick threw out Graham Spanier’s conviction last year, just one day before he was supposed to serve his two-month sentence followed by two months of house arrest. She found his due process rights were violated by how the jury in his case was instructed. State prosecutors appealed her decision to the Third Circuit.

Spanier’s attorney Bruce Merenstein argued to the Philadelphia-based appeals court in June that his client should not have been convicted on the amended 2007 version of the law, but rather the 1995 version because the alleged crimes happened in 2001. The amended version of the child endangerment law extends to anyone who supervises or employs people responsible for the welfare of children.

Because of this, Merenstein argued that Spanier was being charged under a version of the statute that imposed criminal liability “against people who were not covered before 2007.” The state, meanwhile, argued that the amendment simply clarified the law and that Spanier was prosecuted under the 1995 version.

U.S. Circuit Judge Michael Fisher, a George W. Bush appointee writing for a unanimous three-judge panel, ruled against the ousted university president on Tuesday.

“It is not reasonably likely that the jury convicted Spanier because he employed someone who supervised the welfare of a child—rather than because he himself supervised the welfare of a child,” the 34-page ruling states.

Fisher also looked to the Pennsylvania Superior Court’s ruling that upheld Spanier’s conviction in 2018, saying his rights would only have been violated if there was an “‘unexpected and indefensible’ interpretation of the child endangerment statute in light of prior law”, which Fisher says was not the case.

The panel did, however, affirm the magistrate’s decision that shot down Spanier’s arguments that his rights were violated because he was not informed about a possible exception to the statute of limitations prior to the verdict.

Fisher was joined on the panel by a fellow Bush appointee, U.S. Circuit Judge Michael Chagares, and U.S Circuit Judge David Porter, a Trump appointee.

Merenstein, with the Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis law firm, did not respond to an email seeking comment. Ronald Eisenberg, who represented the state at arguments, also did not respond to a request for comment.

Spanier’s conviction comes from his failure to report to authorities that former assistant football coach Mike McQueary said he saw Sandusky in the shower with a young boy.

In 2001, Spanier wrote an email to his vice president and athletic director that said “the only downside for us is if the message isn’t ‘heard’ and acted upon, and we then become vulnerable for not having reported it.”

Spanier, now 72, was convicted in 2017 after being pushed out of his position at Penn State in 2011 following Sandusky’s arrest, though he remains a tenured employee. 

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro praised the Third Circuit’s decision Tuesday.

“No one is above the law, especially when it comes to the welfare of children. Today’s ruling to reinstate the conviction of Graham Spanier proves just that,” Shapiro said in a statement. “Spanier turned a blind eye to child abuse by not reporting his knowledge of Jerry Sandusky’s assaults to law enforcement. Let it be known – if you hurt kids or cover up child abuse – my office will act and you will be held accountable.”

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