Court orders records unsealed in Penn State officials’ case
HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — A Pennsylvania appeals court on Monday ordered the release of documents sealed in the criminal case against former Penn State administrators over their handling of child sex abuse complaints about former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky.
The three-judge Superior Court panel’s unanimous decision concerned many of the more than 200 records sealed in the case against former university president Graham Spanier, former vice president Gary Schultz and former athletic director Tim Curley.
Spanier is currently appealing his guilty verdict on a single count of child endangerment. Schultz and Curley pleaded guilty to the same offense and have served jail time. Lawyers for all three declined comment on the appeals court decision.
The judges said the basic information in many of the documents sought by The Associated Press has previously been made public and should be released, although they also ruled that sealed “proffers” were not made part of the court record and so are not subject to public disclosure. Docket entries also must be revealed.
The appeals court criticized the trial judge for issuing a blanket order sealing all documents rather than specifying why he was sealing each individual record.
News organizations applauded the appeals court’s ruling.
“Today’s decision is a victory for transparency,” said Lauren Easton, director of media relations for The Associated Press. “These records are a matter of great public interest, and The Associated Press is pleased that they will be unsealed.”
Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, said the ruling affirmed that blanket sealing orders are not appropriate.
“It’s not a common issue that judges face at the trial court level, so any time that an appeals court weighs in and tells them specifically and definitively, ‘Here’s what you must do in these cases,’ that works in favor of really everyone, so the public isn’t faced with these broad blanket orders that don’t explain what’s been denied and why it’s been denied,” Melewsky said.
Lawyers for Spanier and Curley have argued against releasing the documents.
Many of the records in question concern the role played by former Penn State general counsel Cynthia Baldwin as the three men testified before a statewide investigative grand jury in 2011, before Sandusky was charged with child molestation. She also testified about the three men before a grand jury in 2012.
Baldwin’s actions were deemed to have violated attorney-client privilege, and charges related to those appearances were subsequently thrown out, narrowing the charges the three faced.
Spanier’s lawyers, Senior Judge Lillian Harris Ransom wrote, have argued that those still-sealed documents “contained ‘privileged communications not yet disclosed,’” but she said the judges have not been told how the contents of the documents differ from the testimony and evidence that was previously released.
The “proffer letters,” a term Melewsky defined as an agreement between prosecutors and witnesses about the scope of their testimony, were sealed because the trial judge determined they were not public court records, Ransom wrote.
“Because the proffers were never docketed, formally filed with the court or required by any rule of criminal procedure, they are not considered ‘public judicial documents’ subject to the right of First Amendment or common law access,” the judge wrote, upholding the decision to keep them under seal.
Sandusky, Penn State’s former defensive football coach under Hall of Fame head coach Joe Paterno, was convicted of 45 counts of child sexual abuse in 2012 and is serving a 30- to 60-year state prison term. He maintains his innocence and is pursuing appeals.