BELLEFONTE, Pa. - Jerry Sandusky on Tuesday unexpectedly waived a preliminary hearing on charges he molested 10 boys, a last-minute decision that drew gasps from a packed courtroom and stirred new questions about how and when his case might end.
Sandusky's lawyer, Joseph Amendola, said the former Pennsylvania State University coach still planned to fight the charges at trial next year.
Amendola said Sandusky decided late Monday to forgo the hearing because he saw no benefit in a proceeding at which most, if not all, of his accusers would have testified, but he would not be allowed to present a defense.
"Realistically," Amendola told reporters, "all that would have done [was] reinforced what you already believe: that Jerry Sandusky is guilty."
Though not uncommon, the waiver was another jaw-dropping development in a case that has led school officials to oust head football coach Joe Paterno and university president Graham B. Spanier, stirred a half-dozen investigations, and unleashed unending scrutiny on the university. Some attorneys involved in the case said the sudden decision to waive the hearing suggested the first step in a possible plea bargain.
For weeks, Sandusky and his lawyer have publicly proclaimed his innocence. Amendola repeatedly said he looked forward to confronting the accusers at the hearing, and predicted that at least half might dispute the abuse allegations outlined in a grand jury report.
At least 11 witnesses were prepared to testify, according to Senior Deputy Attorney General E. Marc Costanzo.
They included not only the young men who say Sandusky sexually abused them starting in the mid-1990s, but also Mike McQueary, the former graduate assistant who told the grand jury he saw Sandusky raping a boy in the football team's locker-room shower in 2002 and reported the incident to Paterno.
Prosecutors and Amendola have not discussed a plea, Costanzo said, but Sandusky's willingness to forgo the hearing "helps the prosecution in a lot of ways," including by sparing witnesses the spotlight.
None has been publicly identified in court filings, and it was unclear if any would be named in open court. But, Costanzo said, "not having to go through the pain and suffering that's brought by a case like this, I think, is an important factor to consider."
Still, the waiver sparked outrage from victims and their lawyers, who accused the coach and his attorney of gamesmanship.
"I can't believe they put us through this until the last second, only to waive the hearing," one of the unidentified accusers said in a statement released by his lawyer, Ben Andreozzi. "I can't put into words how unbearable this has been on my life, both physically and mentally."
Sandusky, 67, faces more than 50 counts of involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, corruption of minors, and endangerment. Prosecutors contend that he met and groomed his victims through the Second Mile, a charity he founded and ran for underprivileged children, both while he was a key aide to Paterno and after he retired in 1999.
The preliminary hearing was in some ways expected to be a formality, ending with the judge's declaring there was sufficient evidence to proceed to a jury trial.
Under court rules, Sandusky would not have mounted a defense, and Amendola would have been precluded from scrutinizing the witnesses' backgrounds or challenging their credibility.
The case has fixated the state and the sports world, and the proceeding drew international attention. The prospect of such high drama in court has been unprecedented in Bellefonte, the Centre County seat, 10 miles north of State College.
Police closed streets and increased patrols to accommodate almost 30 satellite trucks, hundreds of reporters from across the country, and other onlookers.
The courthouse effectively closed for the day, except as host for the proceeding in the second-floor ceremonial courtroom. Seats there were nearly full an hour before the 8:30 a.m. hearing began. Testimony had been expected to last all day.
Ringed by police officers, Sandusky, wearing a dark-blue suit and maroon tie, entered the building through a back entrance, but came into the courtroom through its front doors. The crowd became silent as he walked down an aisle with Amendola at his side, then hustled into the jury room and closed the door.
Not long after, his wife, Dorothy, and more than a dozen relatives and friends filed into their assigned seats in the front rows.
Almost as soon as Senior District Judge Robert E. Scott opened the hearing, Amendola asked for a sidebar conference with the judge and the lead prosecutor, Senior Deputy Attorney General Joseph E. McGettigan.
Then Scott dropped the news.
"The defendant has chosen to waive a preliminary hearing," the judge announced before turning to Sandusky at the defense table. "Mr. Sandusky, you understand your right to have a preliminary hearing on this date, and you are giving up your rights."
Sandusky nodded. Within minutes, he was ushered back out the rear door toward a waiting car.
"We fully intend to put together the best possible defense and stay the course for four full quarters," Sandusky told a crush of reporters before climbing into a black SUV driven by Amendola.
Lawyers for several of the alleged victims said they were shocked. Michael Boni, a Bala Cynwyd lawyer who represents an 18-year-old accuser from Lock Haven, said he dined with the teen Monday night and took a front-row seat Tuesday expecting to watch him testify.
Boni's cocounsel, Philadelphia lawyer Slade McLaughlin, was one of several who interpreted the waiver as Sandusky's first step toward a guilty plea. "It's absolutely going in that direction," McLaughlin said.
Howard Janet, who represents another accuser, blasted Amendola for questioning the motivation and credibility of the alleged victims, then abandoning the hearing. Had it proceeded, Janet said, "it would have been apparent to the public . . . who was lying."
Amendola dismissed the criticism. After dropping off Sandusky, he returned to the courthouse to face a media throng in the square outside the courthouse. For close to an hour, he answered questions, maintaining Sandusky's innocence, questioning the prosecution's case, and defending the waiver as "a tactical measure."
Amendola said the waiver also made sense because prosecutors agreed to turn over evidence in the case more quickly and to not seek any new bail conditions. He denied talk of a plea deal.
"There will be no plea negotiations," Amendola said. "This is a fight to the death. This is the fight of Jerry Sandusky's life."
Sandusky's next court date is a Jan. 11 arraignment, when he is expected to formally enter a plea. He remains free on $250,000 bail, but is under house arrest and subject to electronic monitoring.
Later Tuesday, the lawyers for two former Penn State administrators charged in the case said their clients would not waive their preliminary hearings, scheduled for Friday before a district judge in Harrisburg.
Athletic Director Timothy Curley and former senior vice president Gary Schultz are accused of failing to report McQueary's 2002 allegations to law enforcement and later lying about it to the grand jury.
Through their lawyers, they have denied any wrongdoing.
See Jerry Sandusky's lawyer discuss the decision to waive the hearing at