Judge Rosemarie Aquilina’s sentencing of Larry Nassar was within her judicial rights

Aquilina has done right by the victims and her station, though some criticism of her behaviour has been valid


Written by Victoria Lopatka, Staff Writer

Larry Nassar was a respected, world-class American sports physician. Parents were eager to take their blossoming athletes to him, some of the country’s greatest female gymnasts, for treatment of varying aches and pains. Now, he will spend the rest of his life in jail for sexual assault of children as young as six years old, under the guise of medical treatment.

The trial and the sentencing

Rachael Denhollander was the first victim to come forward, speaking about the abuse she suffered at the hands of Nassar, “At age 15, when I suffered from chronic back pain, Larry sexually assaulted me repeatedly . . . He did this with my own mother in the room, carefully and perfectly obstructing her view so she would not know what he was doing.”

One by one, other victims of Nassar stepped forward, including Simone Biles, Gabby Douglas, McKayla Maroney, Aly Raisman, Jordyn Wieber, and many others. Complaints against Nassar date back to 1997. All were shrugged off.

Kyle Stephens described how she was abused by Nassar from a young age, him exposing himself to her and masturbating in her presence. She was too young to understand how wrong it was. Elite gymnast Mattie Larson describes purposefully injuring herself in order to avoid going to national training camp, where she knew Nassar would be.

Over the course of the trial, a total of 156 victims spoke, recounting abuse they suffered at the hands of Nassar. Nassar himself also addressed the court, in the form of a letter written to the judge early in the hearing, saying, “I was a good doctor, because my treatments worked and those patients that are now speaking out were the same ones that praised and came back over and over. The media convinced them that it was wrong and bad. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.” As the trial continued, he changed his tune, suddenly apologizing to the victims. He also claimed he feared the impact hearing victim statements would have on his mental health.

The Michigan judge, Rosemarie Aquilina, appeared disgusted at his words. “You may find it harsh that you are here listening, but nothing is as harsh as what your victims endured for thousands of hours at your hands. Spending four or five days listening to them is minor, considering the hours of pleasure you’ve had at their expense, ruining their lives.”

Larry Nassar was sentenced to 40 to 175 years in prison for the sexual abuse of more than 150 female athletes.

Judge Aquilina wasn’t about to let Nassar get away with rape

For Nassar to claim himself to be a “good doctor” is an insult to doctors everywhere. To then imply that his patients came back again and again because his so-called “treatment” was so effective is repugnant. How exactly, Mr. Nassar, is unlawfully penetrating patients and masturbating in front of them so effective?

To even think that he could be exempt from hearing victim statements statements recounting the abuse he put them through from as young as six years old due to his fear that it will negatively affect his mental health?

Excuse me if I don’t shed any tears for serial child molesters.

Aquilina’s fierce outpouring of compassion and support for sexual assault survivors is unfortunately rarely seen in media reports of cases like this. We more often see ludicrously lenient sentences, such as the case of Brock Turner serving only three months in jail for sexual assault of an unconscious woman. Robin Camp’s statements to sexual assault victims regarding “keeping their knees together” also spring to mind.

When we’re so used to abusers getting away with heinous crimes and a victim-blaming mentality in the judiciary, anything out of that norm can feel shocking and radical. However, not everyone is praising Aquilina — while some of those concerns are certainly valid, Aquilina’s actions overall were commendable.

Aquilina’s conduct, for the most part, did not overstep the bounds of justice

It is interesting how when discussing a white male rapist, we hear cries of impartiality and the female judge being mean or harsh, but when disproportionate amounts of marginalized populations are being sent to prison, the critics seemingly fall silent.

Citing quotes like it is my honour and privilege to sentence you” and “I’ve just signed your death warrant,” critics claim that Aquilina went beyond her role as a judiciary, threatening her impartiality, and therefore, justice in general. Public defender Rachel Marshall expressed concern “when judges use individual cases to send a broader social message” and become advocates. Many were concerned it could lead to a retrial.

“Bottom line,” says David von Ebers, a senior legal editor for Thomson Reuters Practical Law, via Twitter, “If you think the Nassar judge’s comments were inappropriate or even unusual, you should go down to 26th and California in Chicago and listen in on sentencing hearings in murder cases.”

Stephen Gillers, a professor at New York University and an expert in legal ethics, notes that in 1994, the Supreme Court ruled that “a judge can, upon completion of the evidence, be exceedingly ill disposed towards the defendant, who has been shown to be a thoroughly reprehensible person.” I think it is safe to say Larry Nassar meets these qualifications. We have seen frank opinions and emotionality from judges in previous cases, and it’s alright to do so, as long as “the judge’s opinion is drawn from the relevant facts in the case, and not extraneous factors, such as the race of a defendant.”

In a similar case, that of Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky, Judge John Cleland gave him 30 to 60 years in prison for the abuse of ten boys. Judge Cleland had some scathing and emotional words to share, too: “You abused the trust of those who trusted you. These are not crimes against strangers, they are much worse. The crime is not only what you did to their bodies, but your assault to the safety and well-being of the community in which we all live.”

However, implying that she would wish sexual violence upon Nassar himself is not OK

Aquilina did make one worrisome comment: “Our Constitution does not allow for cruel and unusual punishment. If it did, I have to say, I might allow what he did to all of these beautiful souls, these young women in their childhood, I would allow some or many people to do to him what he did to others.”

The implication many have read into this statement is that the judge’s “do to him what he did to others” was referring to Nassar being raped. It might even “act as an incitement,” one Fortune article argues. “There’s a risk that inmates in the Michigan prison system will hear that remark and feel empowered to act on it . . . corrections officers might interpret it as a suggestion that they turn a blind eye to Nassar being assaulted.

Admittedly, I was cheering on Aquilina as I read through recounts of her giving victims opportunities to speak and her very appropriate sentence, but at this particular comment, I found myself having to take a step back. Nassar is a sicko and a monster, but does anyone deserve to be sexually assaulted? The entire trial was condemning rape . . . but it’s OK as a punishment and retribution? It’s OK for rapists to be raped as punishment?

The veiled comment was uncalled for and unnecessary. The concept that there are possible justifications for sexual violence, under any circumstance, is dangerous. A better message would be that rape is never, under any circumstances, OK.

Legal experts supporting Aquilina agree that though the comment was unadvisable, and most likely came from the emotional testimonies and the realization of the depth of Nassar’s heinous acts. Luckily for the victims involved, this conduct will not likely raise any legal issues.

Despite concerns, Aquilina’s actions have shifted neither focus nor support away from the victims

Critics feel the judge, through this comment and her harsh conduct throughout the trial, was drawing attention away from the issue at hand and the women who had come forward. However, I don’t believe Aquilina’s comment or any of her behaviour took away focus from the victims. In fact, I respect her fierce compassion for the victims.

That she allowed each and every one the ability to speak for themselves demonstrates her commitment to those survivors. The judge is being praised by victims, their families, and observers of the case alike, being called an icon and an activist.

Denhollander even took time to thank Aquilina: “I do want to thank you, first, Judge Aquilina, for giving all of us the chance to reclaim our voices. Our voices were taken from us for so long, and I’m grateful beyond what I can express that you have given us the chance to restore them.”

Aquilina not only empowered the victims through letting them speak, but was also reportedly kind and compassionate to each and every one, inspiring them with powerful rhetoric, “Leave your pain here, and go out and do your magnificent things!” She made sure the focus remained on those most important: the women present, the survivors of `assault.

We need more judges who have positive influences on the lives of victims and survivors. I strongly feel and hope that sexual assault victims who watched the trial will feel a little bit better about the justice system, and feel inspired and strengthened by the fantastic women who took part.

If Larry Nassar meant to embarrass or mock women through his “hell hath no fury” comment, it didn’t work. Let it be a message to all scumbags and abusers like Nassar: your time is coming. When it does, you’ll be very, very sorry.

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