The week-long sentencing hearing of former Olympic Gymnastics doctor and longtime Michigan State physician, Larry Nassar, would have been just another, unfortunately typical, #MeToo era proceeding without the fearless Judge Rosemarie Aquilina.
Through the heart-wrenching testimonies, she made it possible for victims to walk out of the courtroom with their heads held high, an atypical image for abuse survivors. Though some think this open advocacy isn’t appropriate for the courtroom and deem her treatment of Nassar as overly harsh, I praise her action and see it as a step forward for women who have been victims of abuse.
After sentencing Nassar to 40 to 175 years in prison on top of a 60-year child pornography sentence, Judge Aquilina took the regular stoic image of a judge and threw it out the window, becoming one of the most powerful female advocates in recent years.
Once Judge Aquilina announced the opening of the hearing to all victims, hundreds of women, from Olympic medalists to former college athletes, flocked to court to provide testimony and air years of grief. What was estimated to be a hearing of estimated 80 statements became a week long event of over 156 stories told. Judge Aquilina boldly called for all to “speak out like these survivors, become part of the army.” To another victim, she said, “leave your pain here and go out and do your magnificent things.”
Having a judge’s support and open arms made the experience less fearful, and more about inspiring others. Providing these women an opportunity to dig deep and share their trauma has created a cathartic, yet supportive, space for previously voiceless victims to be heard on a nationwide scale.
On the flip side, Aquilina has addressed Nassar with severity. After Nassar’s letter concerning his “mental stability” after days of victim statements, Judge Aquilina shut him down. “Spending four or five days listening to them is significantly minor,” she said, “considering the hours of pleasure you had at their expense.” This perfectly encapsulated what every supporter and every victim was thinking.
Though some of her comments concerning Nassar’s punishment have been on the extreme side, Judge Aquilina’s unforgiving attitude towards his weak explanations and defense is exactly how abuser’s like Nassar should be treated. Too often, there are excuses made, or senseless coverups drawn up to defend those who have commited sex crimes.
Over the past few years, moments like Bill Cosby avoiding jail time after several rape accusations or Brock Turner receiving a lenient sentence of six months after sexually assaulting an unconscious woman, made justice seem far-fetched.
After seeing cases like these unfold on the side of the abuser, it’s refreshing to see outright support of women.
This support came at the perfect time too. After an entire year filled with a president who outwardly brags about harassment, hundreds of celebrity and big business assault accusations, and ongoing threats against basic female healthcare, moments like Judge Aquilina throwing Nassar’s letter aside are a victory. In the midst of a cultural movement against sexual harassment and abuse, high profile cases become reference points and, in this case, inspiration.
Sterling Riethman’s, one of Nassar’s victims, statement about Judge Aquilina conveyed just how far Judge Aquilina’s support went.
“Her words are powerful. She heard us,” she said.
To find justice in court is a milestone, but being heard is what changes lives.