Judge Aquilina – Arbiter of Justice, Champion of Survivors

Judge Aquilina Sentences Nassar to Life in Prison for Sexual Assault

On Wednesday, January 24th, 2018, Larry Nassar, former osteopathic physician for the USA Gymnastics national team, was sentenced to a total of 175-235 years in federal prison for the possession of child pornography (60 years) and repeated sexual assault of over 150 underage girls (40-175). In Ingham County Circuit Court in Lansing, Michigan, 156 women came forward to testify against Nassar, recounting horrific, devastating tales of sexual abuse. Several of whom also accused Michigan State, the U. S. Olympic Committee, and USA Gymnastics for neglecting to advocate for the survivors and prevent future abuse. The survivors range from 6 years of age through adolescence and adulthood. Among them are Olympic gold medalists Simone Biles, Aly Raisman, McKayla Maroney, Gabby Douglas, and Jordyn Wieber. Judge Rosemarie Aquilina presided over the Nassar trial, ultimately sentencing Larry Nassar to life in prison.

According to Sophie Gilbert’s article for The Atlantic, this forward-thinking ruling sets a new precedent upon which to view rape cases. If we refer to sexual assault cases tried in the past few years, one might notice a disheartening pattern. Survivors frequently experience blame and invalidation from judges, police officers, and others meant to represent a just legal system.

For example, In 2013, Judge G. Todd Baugh sentenced an accused high school teacher to 31 days for assaulting a high school freshman. Baugh uttered that the 14 year old girl, who had taken her own life in 2010 while the case was pending, was “in as much control of the situation” as her abuser.

Another illustration of this pattern would be in Arizona, in 2012, when a state trooper assaulted a woman at a bar. Judge Jacqueline Hatch remarked to the survivor that “if you wouldn’t have been there that night, none of this would have happened.”

Or maybe we should revisit The People v. Brock Turner from 2015? When a Stanford athlete raped an unconscious girl behind a dumpster and only served three months because “twenty minutes of action” should not ruin his life?

And let’s not forget the Montana father who repeatedly raped his 12 year old daughter and only served 60 days in the interest of “rehabilitation of the offender.”

Granted, sexual assault can be difficult to prove and our country honors the valued platitude of “innocent until proven guilty”. However, it is abundantly clear that our legal system’s enduring habit of blaming survivors has wreaked havoc on thousands of traumatized people who deserve justice. Not only this, but think of all the dangerous, undeserving people who get to walk free because of a skewed judge that does not believe in the possibility of coerced sexual contact.

MSU university administrators followed this blueprint when they received at least six reports from students about Nassar’s behavior. All of them were turned away.  The administrators took it upon themselves to make justice by speculating on what they knew of Nassar’s character. Deciding what they thought was most likely without offering any of these girls the proper platform, resources, or support. According to Caroline Kitchner from The Atlantic, “Kristine Moore, the university’s Title IX investigator, said the women likely did not understand the “nuanced difference” between proper medical procedure and sexual abuse.” Even receiving multiple reports about the same faculty member with the same accusations did not clue them in to thinking this may actually be something. Not that it should take more than one person, but one would think that strength in numbers would prevail over a school administration and raise concern for the welfare of their student body.

Thankfully, Judge R. Aquilina was not so blase. You readers have likely stumbled across the videos circulating like wildfire on social media this past week. The videos in which her honor, eyebrows arched and shoulders hunched forward, stares daggers across the courtroom at a meek, silent Larry Nassar, sunken to the point of attempting penance in the form of a six-page letter to Aquilina. Upon delivering her verdict, Aquilina regails Nassar, the court, and the community of survivors (who were no doubt watching) with the news that she has “just signed [Nassar’s] death warrant.” In her words, “As much as it was my honor and privilege to hear the sister survivors, it is my honor and privilege to sentence you.” Millions of survivors across the country have liked, shared, and otherwise put their stamps of approval on Aquilina’s ruling as well as her demeanor. Not only did she deliver just sentencing to a discernibly dangerous person, but she indicated no signs of intimidation or fear. Rather she faced him with strength and courage, saying to Nassar what the survivors of his evils needed to hear said. She also provided the survivors a rare opportunity for a kind of cathartic closure – a safe platform from which they could confront their abuser from a place of power. Interestingly enough, there are those who say she was out of line. In fact, some interpret Aquilina’s tone as unprofessional and implicant of bias as opposed to calm, objective decisiveness. Melissa Jeltsen gives Aquilina all due credit regarding her ruling, but criticized her for embodying “an advocate [as opposed to] a dispassionate judge.” To me, this is understandable since Aquilina’s duty involves approaching each case in an unbiased way and delivering justice to the best of her ability after hearing both sides. However, that is what she did. While I admit to being compelled by her emotion upon first impact, I admire and understand it. Most people might experience strong emotions after a whole week of hearing 156 crying, traumatized women provide harrowing statements. Her comments indicated no ill will.  There was no evidence of having entered the bench with a decided vote before she heard the case. And no hope that anything bad happens to Nassar in prison. Aquilina had the survivors’ best interests in mind. Meant as a symbol of her support, sympathy, and utilization of her power, she truly delivered justice.

About The Author

Anneliese Aberg Scalzo is a senior World Literature major at Fairleigh Dickinson University. She hopes to pursue a career as a human rights attorney. Anneliese is immensely passionate about issues involving disadvantaged populations around the world and hopes to utilize her affinity for words to spread awareness. In her downtime, Anneliese enjoys practicing her Swedish language skills, adding to her home library, and relaxing with her dogs.