How Judge Aquilina defended herself against Larry Nassar

Dan Wetzel
Columnist
Judge Rosemarie Aquilina sentenced Larry Nassar, former USA Gymnastics and Michigan State team doctor, to 40-175 years. (AP)

LANSING, Mich. – On Friday morning Larry Nassar’s court-appointed appellate attorney had to stand in front of Judge Rosemarie Aquilina and argue that Judge Rosemarie Aquilina, herself, had, at the very least, presented such an appearance of bias that she should remove herself from the case.

Predictably, it went quite poorly.

Aquilina not only denied the motion argued orally by Malaika Ramsey-Heath, she delivered a blistering, near 30-minute explanation that doubled as a defense of her conduct, ethics and style.

It contained none of the softness or heartfelt support Aquilina displayed to the 156 women who Nassar admitted sexually abusing when they stood before her across a remarkable seven-day sentencing hearing in January. After each statement, Aquilina praised and lifted up the victims, often emotionally wrought and visibly shaken young women. Her compassion drew the world’s attention and made Aquilina an unexpected star.

“You matter,” Aquilina said repeatedly to victims. “Your voice is strong and being heard.”

On Friday Aquilina did, however, express a measure of the same disgust she heaped on Nassar when she sentenced him to between 40-175 years in state prison, which was also met with near-universal support from the public.

“Bias? No,” Aquilina said Friday in response to Ramsey-Heath. “Justice? Yes.”

Nassar, 54, is currently serving a 60-year prison sentence on a federal child pornography charge. In addition to Aquilina’s sentence, he also faces 40-125 years in a similar case out of Eaton County, Mich.

The former USA Gymnastics and Michigan State doctor is attempting to have all three sentences reduced in an effort to give him the possibility of freedom. Knowing he is unlikely to find sympathy here in Aquilina’s Courtroom 5, part of the process is getting her off the case. Nassar was not in court Friday. He remains in a correctional institute outside Tucson, Ariz.

Aquilina acknowledged Nassar has the right to appeal and if the Court of Appeals or State Supreme Court rules she erred in her sentencing then she would adjust it. Other than that, she saw through this motion.

“What the defendant has is buyer’s remorse,” Aquilina said, noting she was prepared to hold a trial but he pleaded guilty. “He’s really seeking a reduction in time. He’s really seeking a second chance.”

In this Nov. 22, 2017, file photo, Dr. Larry Nassar appears in court for a plea hearing in Lansing, Mich. (AP)

Nassar’s argument centered on Aquilina’s conduct during and after the sentencing.

It includes everything from Aquilina’s social media, to an appearance at last month’s ESPYs, to T-shirts bearing her name becoming popular after actress Natalie Portman sported one on “Saturday Night Live.” It argued Aquilina was unnecessarily harsh during sentencing, in part because of the reporters and cameras present. It argued Aquilina has become too linked with Nassar’s survivors and the movement they represent.

“The appearance of impropriety has been broken by this court,” Ramsey-Heath said.

And that’s when Aquilina in a calm, measured, but unyielding voice dismantled every suggestion.

Aquilina noted that sentencing occurred after Nassar pleaded guilty. Even then she twice asked him in open court if he wanted to pull his plea. Judges need not be timid at sentencing.

She held up a 4-inch binder she said was filled with media requests she has turned down. She promised that would continue until after the appellate process. While Aquilina didn’t specifically say it, many of those are inquiries for paid interviews, reality shows or even her own “Judge Judy”-type program that could prove extremely lucrative.

“I’m not going to profit off this case,” said Aquilina, the mother of five, an Army National Guard veteran and a part-time law school professor.

She noted how political groups encouraged her to run for State Supreme Court but she declined, despite, as Michigan’s most famous and beloved judge, easily being able to win. Instead, she is still working here in a non-descript government building downtown, a parade of domestic disputes, DUIs and simple assaults coming before her.

“Why did I say, ‘No, thank you?’ ” Aquilina asked. “Because it didn’t feel right. Because it felt like they were only offering because of this case.”

As for the T-shirts, she said Portman did that on her own with no prior notice. The popularity of Aquilina merchandise actually required the judge to spend money trademarking her name and image. Aquilina is setting up a foundation funded by whatever money she is able to retrieve to support victims of sexual abuse, and not just Nassar’s.

She attended the ESPYs, where Nassar’s victims were presented an award, but she sat with her daughter, and lots of people were in the audience. The First Amendment allows her to be on social media, she stated.

On and on it went, Aquilina growing frustrated that Larry Nassar, of all people, was making her defend her ethics.

She had no time for the idea her sentence was too harsh. Her minimum sentence of 40 years (which was agreed to as part of the pleas) accounted for just 93.5 days per victim who appeared before her.

“That’s what a domestic violence first [time] gets,” Aquilina said.

So, yeah, she thinks 175 years, or many more, would be appropriate for poor, old Larry.

Nassar even blamed a recent prison attack that allegedly targeted him on Aquilina’s rough words and demeanor during sentencing.

“If he was attacked in federal prison,” prosecutor Laura Moody argued in opposing the motion, “it is because he is a convicted and admitted child molester and not anything this court said.”

“I don’t know why he was in general population,” Aquilina said, noting Nassar is serving a federal sentence, not hers. “It’s a well-known fact what happens there.”

After the denial, Nassar’s motion was immediately appealed, and perhaps he finds a sympathetic judge somewhere down the line.

This much is true: Aquilina handled a unique case in a unique manner but that all falls back on Nassar. He’s the one who sexually assaulted all those victims. He’s the one who damaged so many lives. He’s the one at the heart of all of this, not the heretofore anonymous circuit court judge who received the case.

Aquilina warned Nassar on multiple occasions that while he was pleading to just seven counts, every one of his victims would get a chance to address him for as long as they wanted.

Originally 88 survivors signed up, but as the powerful and inspiring words – and Aquilina’s support for them – were reported around the country, dozens and dozens of additional women came forward. What started with only limited media coverage, mostly local, became an impossible-to-ignore force of nature that spurred a movement.

Yes, Judge Rosemarie Aquilina played a big part in that, a big part in framing exactly the kind of monster Larry Nassar was and the reign of terror he was responsible for, but also the dawning of hope and healing in the aftermath.

Those victims are moving onward and upward with their lives. Larry Nassar is fearing another beat-down in gen pop.

Bias? No. Justice? Yes.

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