Spanier v. Director Dauphin County Probation Services, No. 19-2228 (3d Cir. 2020)Annotate this Case
In 2001, Penn State’s former president, Spanier, and others decided not to report to state authorities suspected sexual abuse of children involving the school’s football program and Jerry Sandusky, the well-known defensive coordinator for Penn State’s football team. In 2007, Pennsylvania amended the statutory definition of child endangerment and its statute of limitations. In 2012, Spanier was charged. The jury was instructed in language that tracked the post-amendment statute. The Commonwealth argued that Spanier engaged in a course of conduct endangering child welfare until 2012, and therefore he “was charged well within the applicable statute of limitation.” In affirming Spanier’s 2017 conviction, the state court concluded that Spanier's conduct violated the 1995 statute as interpreted by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in 2015. The federal district court granted Spanier’s federal habeas corpus petition and vacated his conviction.
The Third Circuit reversed. The Pennsylvania court’s affirmance of Spanier’s conviction, based on its conclusion that his conduct was covered by the 1995 statute was not “contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court.” While that court applied state supreme court precedent post-dating the conduct in question, the supreme court’s interpretation of the statute was not unforeseeable nor indefensible.