Online Exclusive: John du Pont Prosecutor Talks
'Foxcatcher,' about the murder of Olympic wrestler Dave Schultz, debuts at Bryn Mawr Film Institute on Nov. 26.
No stranger to successfully prosecuting high-profile court cases, Joe McGettigan helped put multimillionaire murderer John du Pont behind bars, and more recently Penn State assistant football coach and pedophile Jerry Sandusky. The Nov. 26 debut of Foxcatcher in local theaters has reignited interest in du Pont’s 1996 murder of Olympic gold-medal wrestler David Schultz at the family estate in Newtown Square. Meanwhile, Schultz’s widow, Nancy, is behind a new documentary directed by Jon Greenhalgh, tentatively titled David. It arrives in early 2015.
The son of a lawyer and the grandson of a police officer, McGettigan grew up in Philadelphia. Though his has been an “unintentional itinerant career” based on happenstance and opportunity, the media resident has served as first assistant district attorney in both Delaware County and Philadelphia, and as an assistant United States attorney. He was a chief deputy in the Attorney General’s office when he nabbed Sandusky.
McGettigan also spent a year in Iraq after the fall of Saddam, where he worked for the U.S. Department of Justice and the State Department to help Iraqis with their criminal justice system.
Here, he opens up about his career, which continues in Berwyn, where he’s been reunited with Dennis McAndrews. Together, as Delaware County prosecutors, they secured a third-degree murder conviction for du Pont, who was sentenced to up to 30 years behind bars. He died in jail in 2010.
MLT: What can you tell us about the movie?
JM: I’ve heard it’s very good, though I haven’t seen anything more than the trailer. Nancy Schultz tells me it portrays David with great respect—and accurately. As long as she’s good with it, I hope it does well. I was perfectly content not to talk about the movie until I talked with Nancy, and she’s in a better position than I am to assess it. But she praised its loyalty to the real-life story of her husband and his memory.
MLT: Is your character in the movie?
JM: I understand that the movie culminates at, or just after, David’s murder and doesn’t extend to the trial. I’m glad, because I wouldn’t have wanted to see the guy cast to play me—though I do have one or two TV credits.
MLT: You spent some time in Hollywood as a consultant to a TV legal drama. Didn’t they start calling you “Hollywood Joe”?
JM: I hope it was just because I was working in Hollywood, and not because of the way I behaved.
MLT: How often do you think about the du Pont case?
JM: I think about it fairly frequently, mostly because of the relationship I still have with Nancy and Dennis. She’s been such a strong young lady, a strong woman. I have such great affection for her. She’s been so great for her kids, and such a good guardian of David’s name and reputation. I never knew David; I never met him. But he plays such a strong place in my recollections of the case because of how everyone else related to him. He was universally held in such high respect. Everyone liked him.
MLT: Though a terrible tragedy, was there any upside to the case for you?
JM: I had the tremendous good fortune to work with Dennis. In the field, he’s such a great guy—the best. Everyone always asks me about trying the du Pont case. But when I’m thinking straight, I say Dennis and I tried the case. Dennis was the brains of the outfit. Any competent lawyer sitting next to Dennis could’ve tried the case. But if he weren’t there, it would’ve been impossible for anyone to try the case.
MLT: If Dennis was the brains, what were you?
JM: I was … It’s hard to say … I was the person who said “no” to all the unreasonable requests the defense made. I was the lightening catcher, a role for which I was well suited. I have to admit one negative about the du Pont case: It burned me out. We worked like dogs, though no one worked more than Dennis. It was two straight years. It was unrelenting, but an intense experience and an interesting case—if you can talk about such a tragic event that way. There was such an incredible spectrum of people—the young wrestlers, the police, Nancy and her kids, the army of [defense] lawyers, forensic psychiatrists, and the media.
MLT: Why was the prosecution successful?
JM: We had such a great combination of people. Pat Meehan (then a Delaware County district attorney, now a U.S. Congressman) was tremendous. He understood early on that the defendant’s resources would allow him to do anything, and spend anything and everything So Pat make a commitment to [financially] support the case to whatever extent necessary. The first move he made was to bring Dennis back. Dennis had left to go into his private practice full-time. He needed Pat and I to arm-twist him to work the case, so Pat and I came knocking. Dennis would’ve been cheap at five times his price, but we were so successful because we had the right combination of people.
MLT: Wasn’t Dennis helpful to you ahead of the Sandusky trial, too?
JM: Dennis not only gives good advice and tactical strategy, he also knows the right thing to do. You can lose perspective in a trial, but he never does. He (intentionally) stayed at the same hotel as me the night before the [Sandusky] trial opened. And that last night, he left me a note on a piece of yellow paper—a note because he didn’t want to call me again. It was part compliment and part advice. He said he knew how hard I’d worked, and then he gave me some advice for how to open with the jury.
MLT: What role did the media play in the du Pont case?
JM: There was an object lesson that became apparent in just the few years after maybe the most infamous acquittal of all-time: O.J. Simpson. I’ve always been of the opinion that one reason the prosecution was not ultimately successful [in that trial] was because it allowed itself to be distracted. It was worried about things other than the clear goal, which should’ve been to obtain justice. It was worried about what it said on TV, and how it looked on TV. Dennis and I talked about this often, and we were determined not to be distracted. We wanted to appear as one thing only at the end of the trial: guys who prosecuted a murderer.
MLT: How important was it to convict du Pont?
JM: To not have would’ve been devastating all the way around. If he were acquitted for any reason, it would’ve been a tremendous injustice to David’s memory, to Nancy and the children. It would’ve been crushing to Dennis and me, because we worked so hard and we believed in what we were doing. Never for a moment did we doubt the rightness of our cause. Du Pont was completely morally responsible, and so we couldn’t allow ourselves to be outworked or outspent (du Pont spent a reported $14 million on his defense). If we lost, it would’ve sent a terrible message about wealth, and then we would’ve been left asking, “What the hell good is a criminal justice system?” At the time, though, I don’t think we realized what pressure we were unconsciously feeling.
MLT: What question haven’t you been asked about the du Pont case?
JM: No one has ever asked me why I think he committed the murder. Everyone has his own theory. Mine is that he killed David for the same underlying reason so many murderers murder for—though he was also propelled by his mental-health issues: He was jealous of David, who was revered. He felt he’d be abandoned after the Olympic year (1996); he thought David would leave. He envied his stature, and he was misguided into thinking that David wasn’t loyal to him. That was it—plus his increasing grandiosity. He really thought he could literally get away with murder. The bottom line is that he was a bad person who was willing to do the unthinkable because he thought he could get away with it. He figured David Schultz lived at Foxcatcher because he allowed him to, so he would die at Foxcatcher because he wanted him to.
MLT: If du Pont had spoken out publicly, what would he have said?
JM: It’s a shame he never spoke candidly. I’ve never had a doubt that he was seriously mentally ill. All sides agreed on that, but I also have never had a doubt that he knew what he was doing when he did it—and that he thought, without doubt, he would get away with it because of who he was.
MLT: What are the parallels to the Sandusky case?
JM: They both involved obvious abhorrent behavior. Both defendants had intense psychological issues; both were manipulative. Du Pont’s manipulation was transparent. He did everything but carry a checkbook strapped to his arm. Sandusky did it with his big persona, aided by the fact that he was an accomplished football coach. He was not a disliked guy. He was “good old Jer,” a big kid at heart—but a true sociopath. Everything in his life was constructed, arranged, to end in one goal: putting himself in close association with children who would become his victims. The two [defendants] had different tools at their disposal. Sandusky was more goal-oriented. DuPont never had a goal in his life other than immediately satisfying a whim or demonstrating his grandiosity.
MLT: Isn’t it immensely satisfying to have won both cases?
JM: I wasn’t entirely satisfied with the du Pont verdict. He should’ve been convicted of first-degree murder. He specifically intended to kill David Schultz. He died in prison anyway, as he deserved to. So, in a way, it was a life sentence. With Sandusky, I was entirely satisfied with the verdict (Sandusky was convicted on 45 of 48 counts), and the penalty was sufficient. He will not outlive a 30- to 60-year sentence.
MLT: Which case will have more long-range impact?
JM: The Sandusky case has societal ramifications—no thanks to me, but rather the case. It has brought heightened awareness to sexual predators, but also to institutional failings and weaknesses. It’s already had a tremendous impact because laws in Pennsylvania have been changed. It’s made the issue more visible. I’d never engage in my own grandiosity, even if a greater good has come of it. [Such] cases are about being able to tell all the victims and their families—and Nancy and her kids—that we did the right thing and did a good professional job.
MLT: This late in the game, what good can come of the movie about Foxcatcher?
JM: It may serve as a cautionary tale about the pitfalls of becoming wrapped up in someone else’s wealth, or maximizing the benefits of someone else’s wealth. Du Pont tried to control everything by leveraging his enormous fortune.