Pennsylvania Federal Court Reverses Child Endangerment Charges Against Former Penn State President Graham Spanier

On April 20, 2019, the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania reversed the 2017 conviction of former Penn State President Graham Spanier for endangering the welfare of a child. Spanier appealed the charges up to the Pennsylvania Superior Court, which then upheld the lower state court’s conviction. Spanier petitioned the federal court for writ of habeas corpus alleging that the lower courts violated his due process and Ex Post Facto Constitutional rights because he was charged under a law that was amended in 2007 for actions that occurred in 2001.

In 2001, Spanier, as President of Penn State University, became aware of and publicly responded to allegations of sexual abuse by Jerry Sandusky, the then-current defensive coordinator for the Penn State football team. In 2012, Spanier was charged on three counts: Endangering the Welfare of Children (violating a duty of care, protection, or support); Endangering the Welfare of Children (in an Official Capacity, preventing or interfering with the making of a report of suspected child abuse); and Conspiracy to Commit Endangering the Welfare of Children. He was convicted in 2017 of one misdemeanor count for endangering the welfare of a child—the other charges were dropped. The jury convicted Spanier under the 2007 version of the Pennsylvania criminal statute for child endangerment, but Spanier committed the actions in 2001. He averred that he should have been charged under the 1995 version of the statute, which did not encompass an individual who was employing or supervising someone else who was supervising the welfare of a child—this portion was added in a 2007 amendment to the Pennsylvania statute. Additionally, the trial court had rejected Spanier’s request that the jury be instructed under the 1995 version of the statute and not the 2007 version. The court rejected his request, and the jury was instructed under the language of the 2007 statute.

The federal court reversed the findings of the state courts, finding that charging Spanier under a statute that did not exist until six years after his actions violated the due process and Ex Post Facto clauses of the Constitution. The Ex Post Facto clause of the Constitution prevents new or amended laws from applying retroactively to an individual’s conduct. Therefore, the court concluded that it violated the Constitution to charge Spanier under a law that did not exist at the time he committed an alleged crime. Accordingly, the federal court reversed Spanier’s 2017 conviction with directions that Spanier be retried under the 1995 statute, the statute that was in effect in 2001.

Sign up for our monthly Extra Mile newsletter. We go the extra mile so you don't have to. Subscribe