Judge Rosemarie Aquilina became a hero to victims of sexual abuse everywhere yesterday when she sentenced Larry Nassar to spend the rest of his miserable life in prison. The judge has received praise (and a good deal of criticism) for allowing a routine sentencing hearing transform into a week long media circus and for her comments upon pronouncing sentence.
But for those who don't understand why her actions were so phenomenal, you need to know something about predators like Larry Nassar and their effect on victims. Sexual abuse is a heinous crime. Sexual abuse of children may be the worst crime ever perpetrated. Victims are left scarred, shamed and often feeling totally alone. There's a reason for "rape shield" laws that protect the identity of victims. Without them, most would never come forward. Which is perfectly understandable. It's traumatic enough to stand in a courtroom and testify in intimate detail about the worst experience of your life without worrying that your name and face will be splashed all over the media. Just look at what happened to the victims who came forward against Bill Cosby, Roy Moore and others. And yet, by allowing the victims to remain anonymous, perhaps we also imply that there IS some reason for them to feel shame.
The first victim to file criminal charges in this case is a textbook example of what happens to victims who go public. According to the prosecutor in the Nassar trial, Rachael Denhollander received threats after she came forward. And other former patients and parents rushed to his defense and even started a petition on his behalf. But thanks to the investigative reporting by the Indy Star, more victims came forward. It's worth noting that before this trial started, Larry Nassar had only pleaded guilty to abusing SEVEN of his patients. So, how did 160 women manage to testify in this trial?
We can thank Judge Aquilina for that. It was her call to allow additional victims to testify, defiantly vowing to keep the trial going until every victim had her say. When Nassar sent a letter complaining about how difficult this testimony was for HIM to endure, the judge made a point of tossing it aside as she dismissed his complaint. “Spending four or five days listening to them is minor, considering the hours of pleasure you've had at their expense, ruining their lives…. 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.”
What she did here is absolutely astounding. Most victims of sexual abuse never file charges. Many never even tell anyone what happened to them. Very few ever get to face down their accusers. But thanks to this judge, 160 victims had their day in court. They all found it cathartic. They've gone from feeling alone and ashamed to finding a sisterhood with each other. They can thank Judge Aquilina for that. This trial started with seven victims. As publicity spread, more requested a chance to speak. Perhaps it was the judge's assurance that this monster WOULD be serving a life sentence that bolstered them. As I followed this case, I noticed that the number of victims set to testify grew with each day. Some had initially declined the opportunity, but changed their minds. Others had requested anonymity, then decided to go public.
I know as a conservative, I'm not supposed to play the gender card, but I seriously doubt a male judge would have allowed this. Many women judges wouldn't either. But Judge Aquilina is not your average jurist. She was the first female JAG officer in the Michigan Army National Guard and served for 20 years. As a professor, she's taught classes about defending battered women and combating child abuse. So naturally, this case struck a never for her.
But the good judge has also had her detractors this week. Especially for her comments upon sentencing Nassar that she had "just signed his death warrant." For all of you critics, I would like to point to the judges in other notorious cases this year such as Todd Baugh, who sentenced a former high-school teacher who’d pleaded guilty to raping a 14-year-old student (who committed suicide) to a suspended sentence and 31 days time served. Or Judge Aaron Persky, who let rapist Brock Turner off with a six month sentence because a prison sentence would "have a severe impact on him." I'll take a judge who insults rapists over one that excuses them any day of the week.
Should Judge Aquilina have stated “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 someone or many people to do to him what he did to others.” Meh- probably not. But it's a very human response. And one echoed by millions who watched this trial.
So, thank you Judge Aquilina. Thank you for the words of comfort you extended to these victims. Thank you for allowing the harsh spotlight into your courtroom. The "media circus" you instigated has a lot of people demanding answers for why Larry Nassar was allowed to operate for so many years. We hope that many others will be held accountable. And if anyone else faces criminal charges in this case, I hope they end up in your courtroom.