Monday, November 21, 2011
Two cities, one in Western New York, one in Western Pennsylvania: One was once a manufacturing town. One is a football town. One has been economically damaged by globalization. One has been more insulated, given that it is home to one of the state's premier public universities.
In the first town, a young black man is charged with spreading the HIV virus to a group of consenting partners, two of whom were underage. In this case, the defendant was characterized as a monster. Posters, with his picture on it, were placed around the area in an attempt to track him down. He found himself on the cover of national magazines. Suggestions were made that he should be tortured and given the death penalty. The state’s governor declared him guilty before he was brought to trial.
He was appointed a public defender. He was held without bail. He was offered a plea deal of 75 years in prison, an offer that he declined, in spite of the atmosphere of hysteria that surrounded his case. Eventually he pled guilty to reckless endangerment and statutory rape. He was placed into protective custody in prison, where he faced harassment by other prisoners and guards, hostile to him because of the publicity that the case generated. He is still confined to prison, and has served almost two years longer than his maximum sentence.
In the second town, State College, Pennsylvania, a man is accused of abusing his position as a football couch and the leader of a nonprofit organization involved with at risk youth. He is accused of raping boys, some as young as ten years old. The indictment against him involves forty counts of sex crimes. He has been a respected and established presence in a community where football is valued in almost religious terms. Evidence appears that he was carrying on questionable activities for years. Calls to investigate his behavior went nowhere, in spite of truly horrifying accusations of his having raped a young boy in a shower.
When charges were finally brought, he is released on $100,000 bail. Finding the money is apparently not a problem. He is seen walking through a local shopping mall, wearing a t-shirt for the college where he was once a coach.
When newscasters discuss the case, they seem very careful to use the term “accused.” High state officials, such as the governor, have made no statements regarding his innocence or guilt. In fact, everyone seems to be exceedingly careful to be sure that his constitutional rights to a fair trial are not violated. After all, he will, no doubt, have good legal representation at his trial.
He is even offered an opportunity to defend himself on national television, an offer to tell his story to one of the nation’s most highly respected sports analysts . While the wisdom of doing this might be questionable, he gets the opportunity, and questions are asked and answered in a civil, moderate tone. Attorneys on a national cable news network debate dispassionately whether the prosecution has a valid case, given the amount of time that has passed, and issues regarding the credibility of accusers.
The two cases in question are Nushawn Williams in the first instance, and of course Jerry Sandusky in the second. The two cases are not equivalent. No two cases ever are. Nushawn Williams was apparently HIV positive when he engaged with sex with young women. Whether he knew of his status is a matter for debate, but it was never debated in media accounts of his case. All of his acts were consensual, although, again, you would be unlikely to learn this from various media reports that circulated at the time.
Jerry Sandusky is accused of truly heinous acts of raping very, very young children. He may have engaged in such behavior for years, raising very troubling questions about the power and irresponsibility of institutional authorities, from the athletic department to the governor's office.
Having been closely involved with following the Williams case for a long time, I try to maintain a reasonable skepticism about the charges that are now being brought against Sandusky. I know that it is very difficult, if not impossible, to determine what happened in criminal cases from press reports. But I am also struck by the moderate, almost analytical tone that comes across when discussing Sandusky. The absence of hyperbole, hysteria, not to mention declarations of outright guilt, offers a stark contrast to the Williams case.