By Ian Simpson
(Reuters) - It might appear on the surface that former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky has one thing going in his favor as he heads into his child sexual abuse trial on Monday -- lots of jurors with ties to the college where he worked for decades.
But legal and jury experts say that familiarity is no guarantee of sympathy for Sandusky and may in fact hurt him if they come to blame him for tarnishing the university's image.
Eight of the 12 jurors picked this week have links to Pennsylvania State University. Legal analysts said those ties could mean a boost for the accused serial predator since he will defend himself before people who know the university and his role in its high-powered football program.
The Penn State links underscore defense attorney Joe Amendola's strategy of keeping the trial in Pennsylvania's rural Centre County, the school's backyard. Prosecutors had sought in January to have the case moved, saying it was impossible to find an impartial jury, but Judge John Cleland turned the bid down.
"It's clear to anyone that follows the case that Jerry Sandusky stands a better chance with people that know him," said Philadelphia attorney Theodore Simon, a vice president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
Victor Vieth, executive director of the National Child Protection Training Center, said Sandusky might be helped by jurors who saw him as a community leader and respected Penn State figure.
But others could want him punished for the damage he had done to Penn State, said Vieth, a former Minnesota prosecutor whose center trains police and professionals on child abuse issues.
"It could go either way. You have to know the individual heart of each of the jurors," he said. "If you have a lot of evidence, jurors can get past their biases."
TRIAL ON MONDAY
Sandusky starts trial on Monday in Pennsylvania's Centre County Court of Common Pleas on 52 counts of sexually abusing 10 boys. The white-haired former assistant coach, the architect of Penn State defenses for decades, faces more than 500 years in prison if convicted.
Prosecutors have accused Sandusky of meeting the boys over a 15-year period through a charity he founded, the Second Mile. They have alleged some of the assaults took place at Penn State facilities.
The explosive allegations in November 2011 forced the firing of university President Graham Spanier and of Joe Paterno, major U.S. college football's winningest coach. Paterno died of lung cancer in January.
The case has also brought unprecedented attention to child sexual abuse.
The legal experts said a high proportion of Penn State jurors was inevitable since the school is the biggest employer in Centre County, an area of small towns and farms set among rolling hills.
Those on the panel with Penn State ties include retired and current professors, a student, a dance instructor and a high-school teacher with degrees from the school. The all-white jury has seven women and five men, with four alternates also picked.
During jury selection, a man about 60 smiled broadly at Sandusky as he entered and described himself as a Penn State football fan.
The former coach leaned over to his attorneys and told them he wanted the man on the panel. He was picked as an alternate.
Janet Blackman, a trial strategy consultant with DOAR Litigation Strategy of Lynbrook, New York, said jurors with Penn State ties could be trouble for Sandusky since they could be more likely to side with the prosecution.
As a juror, "it's ... pretty hard to get behind the idea of one of your own is a child molester. And you want to restore the reputation of the place that you value," she said.
(Reporting by Ian Simpson; Editing by Dan Burns)