Why Jerry Sandusky Went Public…And Why It Will Probably Backfire

Former Penn State coach Jerry Sandusky has taken his case to the media—first to Bob Costas and then to the New York Times. Then even his wife, Dottie, issued a press release claiming that her husband was innocent.

Does trial by media ever work? And why do some defendants like Sandusky go to the media whereas others stay out of the spotlight?

Let’s start with the first question. As a former FBI profiler, I’ve seen defendants grant media interviews and, more times than not, it hurts them. Let’s take a look at a few infamous examples.

Scott Peterson: When his pregnant wife Laci went missing, Scott was in the media spot light. Banking on what he likely believed were his superior verbal skills and ability to persuade and influence people, Scott went to the media to persuade them that he was an innocent man. All the while he urged the public to keep looking for Laci.  He was ultimately arrested and convicted for murdering Laci and their unborn son, Connor and is now on California’s death row at San Quentin Prison.

Drew Peterson: When this former police sergeant was suspected of killing two of his four wives, he hired a publicist and appeared on The TODAY Show and Larry King Live. He seemed to taunt the media, following them around with his own video camera. He appeared to be enjoying himself. He was later indicted on one of those murders.

Captain Jeffrey MacDonald: Nine months after his pregnant wife Collette and their two baby daughters were murdered in their home on Fort Bragg’s Army base, MacDonald went on the Dick Cavett Show. During this interview, a laughing and smirking MacDonald talked about mistakes made in the police investigation. He seemed indignant that an army CID had interviewed him about murdering his family. Collette’s stepfather watched that TV interview and was incredulous that his son in law would make such a public appearance. His support for MacDonald stopped. Ten years later MacDonald was convicted of those crimes and sentenced to life in federal prison.

Former Governor of Illinois, Rod Blogoivich: Recently sentenced to 14 years in prison for his Pay to Play scheme over President Obama’s Senate seat, the governor made the rounds of national talk shows talking about his innocence and all the good he had done as governor. He was even selected for a reality style show for celebrities, but a federal judge thought that it was not such a good idea for him to travel outside the country.

We’ve already seen just how risky it is for Sandusky to be interviewed. He’s now stumbled twice when asked whether he’s sexually attracted to young boys. His interviews have caused more alleged victims to come forward. So why would he and others ever do such a thing? After all it is such a high-risk behavior with the possibility of dire and irreparable consequences.

In my work as an FBI Profiler, I identified specific personality traits and characteristics of individuals that seemed to underpin such reckless decisions. These include:

  1.  Their cases are very high profile in the media.
  2. They have been identified as the most likely suspects.
  3. The individuals are icons for a variety of reasons.
  4. They appear to possess a higher than normal degree of arrogance, narcissism, impulsivity and a need for risk taking or thrill seeking.
  5. They appear detached from their victims. They display a remarkable lack of empathy for the victims before the interview, during the interview and after the interview.
  6. They take on the national media in a very proactive way to persuade the public of their innocence
  7. Their level of awareness of how such an interview might be perceived by the general public is stunningly lacking

The traits and characteristics of these individuals cause them to come across as self-righteous and untouchable, along with a sense of superiority about their own persuasive skills, intelligence, importance, and ability to dupe anyone—reporters, interviewers, and the American public. As a result their attempts to manipulate the media and the public often backfire, and they damage their own case and defense.

I understand that Mr. Sandusky is innocent until proven guilty in court, but his willingness to plead his case before the national media is a very high-risk behavior—behavior that might cause him to convict himself in the public eye.

“The views and opinions expressed by Dr Mary Ellen O’Toole are hers and not necessarily the views of the FBI”.