Sandusky Trial and Histrionic Personality Disorder as a Defense

June 29, 2012

On Friday, June 22nd, a jury found Jerry Sandusky guilty of sexually abusing ten boys.  He was charged with 45 counts of sexual abuse, to be served consecutively.  This means that at 68, Mr. Sandusky will most likely spend the rest of his life in jail. Sandusky Guilty Of Sexual Abuse Of 10 Young Boys, 2012 WLNR 13114287

Although most of the documents are sealed, the docket from the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania denying extraordinary relief is available on Westlaw and WestlawNext in the Pennsylvania state court dockets at 102 MM 2012. Some of the filings and briefs from the case can also be found by searching ti(Gerald /3 sandusky) in the Pennsylvania state and federal materials on WestlawNext.

The assistant coach at one of the most well-known institutions in college football, Penn State, was revered by many for his feats in leading his team time and again to victory on the playing field.  In addition to the time he spent as a coach, Mr. Sandusky also created a charity for wayward boys which he called “Second Mile.”  It is through this charity it is said he found many of his victims.  At Trial, Sandusky’s Wife Comes to His Defense, 2012 WLNR 12809390

The prosecution’s case against Mr. Sandusky was quite damning, to say the least.  In addition to the grueling testimony from the victims and other witnesses, the prosecution also offered into evidence a series of letters from Mr. Sandusky to his young charges which have been described as being rather romantic in nature.  The defense provided the interesting alternative of “histrionic personality disorder” as a reason for the effusive letters.  Although this condition might have caused Sandusky to seek attention with the letters, the defense experts argued, histrionic personality disorder would not necessarily lead him to molest children.  Sandusky defense may use psychiatrist, 2012 WLNR 12854159

In Attorneys Medical Advisor, histrionic personality disorder is defined as “dramatic, flamboyant, extroverted behavior in patients with widely fluctuating emotions.”  6 Attorneys Medical Advisor § 46:15

Obviously, this defense did not work out for Mr. Sandusky.  In fact, many in the press wondered about the soundness of offering it as an option in the first place.  Invoking Scarlett O’Hara? ** Sandusky lawyers say histrionic personality disorder explains ‘love letters’ to accusers., 2012 WLNR 12775150

But as it turns out, this disorder has come up as a defense before in several other cases.  Try the following search in ALLCASES in Westlaw or All State and Federal Materials in WestlawNext to get a sense of how histrionic personality disorder has been used in previous cases:

Histrionic /3 personality behavior /p defense

In secondary sources, this search reveals that histrionic personality disorder has been used to terminate parental rights, to discredit female victims of sexual assault, as a reason to grant lesser sentences under Federal Sentencing Guideline 5K2.13 in nonviolent cases, and as a cause for eligibility under the federal social security act.

Some interesting cases where histrionic personality disorder was offered as a defense include:

State v. Burris, 298 N.J. Super. 505, 689 A.2d 860 (App. Div. 1997): a young lady who claimed to have killed her mother by accident proffered histrionic personality disorder as a reason for her calm and collected manner after her mother’s death.  She was charged with murder at the trial, but the case was reversed on appeal because the court held that her right to remain silent was violated when the trial court refused to allow expert testimony regarding her mental condition unless she testified.   The defense didn’t work at the new trial—she was again charged and sentenced to 30 years in prison with eligibility for parole after 12 years.

People v. Mercer, 70 Cal. App. 4th 463, 82 Cal. Rptr. 2d 723 (1999):  Defendant was determined to be a sexually violent predator who would reoffend if he was released.   On appeal, the court asked to review whether all of the elements for finding someone to be a sexually violent predator had been met.  One of the elements required the finding that the party had a diagnosable mental disorder.  While the prosecution’s experts determined that the defendant had a personality disorder with schizoid features, the defense expert testified that the defendant had histrionic and narcissistic tendencies.  The prosecution experts reached the conclusion that the defendant would repeat his sexually deviant behavior and the defense stated that there was no evidence that the defendant would likely reoffend.  The court affirmed the lower court’s judgment.

As these two cases show, histrionic personality disorder may not be very successful as a defense, but it hasn’t stopped people from trying.

Additional Information:

Tess Wilkinson-Ryan, Admitting Mental Health Evidence to Impeach the Credibility of A Sexual Assault Complainant, 153 U. Pa. L. Rev. 1373 (2005)

Parents’ Mental Illness or Mental Deficiency As Ground for Termination of Parental Rights-General Considerations, 113 A.L.R.5th 349 (Originally published in 2003)

What constitutes “disability” within Federal Social Security Act, 77 A.L.R.2d 641 (Originally published in 1961)

Downward departure under § 5K2.13 of United States Sentencing Guidelines (U.S.S.G.) permitting downward departure for defendants with significantly reduced mental capacity convicted of nonviolent offenses, 128 A.L.R. Fed. 593 (Originally published in 1995)

Generalized Anxiety Disorders, 27 Am. Jur. Proof of Facts 3d 1 (Originally published in 1994)