Larry Nassar, a Michigan gymnastics doctor who pled guilt to sexually assaulting more than 100 young women, won’t be able to change his 175-year prison sentence, a state appeals court held on Tuesday, finding the disgraced Olympic physician got a fair deal although the judge in his case made “wholly inappropriate” remarks throughout.
Mr Nassar, a former doctor at Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics, which trains Olympians, was sentenced to 175 years in prison in 2018 for sexually assaulting hundreds of young women, many of them minors, who came to him seeking treatment for their injuries. He is currently serving a 60-year sentence for child pornography charges at a federal prison in Florida.
Throughout his state trial in Michigan and in various public comments, Ingham County Judge Rosemarie Aquilina made scathing remarks about Mr Nassar, some of which went viral on social media. At various points Judge Aquilina said she’d signed Mr Nassar’s “death warrant", called him a “monster” who would “wither” like the wicked witch in The Wizard of Oz, and mused openly about him being sexually violated.
“Our constitution does not allow for cruel and unusual punishment,” the judge said. “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.”
In a 2-1 decision, Michigan’s Court of Appeals held that these remarks were “wholly inappropriate” and “inflammatory hyperbole” which "challenges basic notions of judicial neutrality, due process, the right to counsel, and the use of social media by judges", but that Ms Aquilina honoured the sentencing agreement negotiated between prosecutors and Mr Nassar’s attorneys.
“Although the comments should not have been made, the judge’s comments did not indicate the existence of actual bias or prejudice,” the court wrote.
One appellate judge, Douglas Shapiro, dissented.
“When the judge repeatedly disparages the defendant over an eight-day period, it demonstrates bias or at least gives the appearance of it,” Mr Shapiro said, arguing it wasn’t a judge’s role during a sentencing process to act as an advocate for survivors of sexual abuse.
Ms Aquilina defended her conduct.
"I stand by what I did," she told ESPN. "I am a voice of the public, and that's a judge's opinion."
Prosecutors involved in the case praised Tuesday’s ruling.
"I am grateful the defendant's conviction was upheld and request for re-sentencing was denied," former Michigan assistant attorney general Angela Povilaitis, the lead prosecutor in the Nassar case, told the sport network. "The survivors demonstrated tremendous courage, strength and resiliency at the sentencing hearing in January 2018, which continues today."
Mr Nassar’s attorney, meanwhile, said he planned to appeal his case to the state’s supreme court.
"We're pleased that at least one Court of Appeals judge recognised that the trial court here was not neutral, wasn't fair and was biased and we are planning to file an application to the [Michigan] Supreme Court within the next 56 days,” Jessica Zimbelman told ESPN.
Following the Nassar scandal, part of a wave of public reckonings about sexual abuse as part of the #MeToo movement, Michigan State settled with victims for $500 million dollars in 2018. USA Gymnastics offered a $215 million settlement in 2020, though survivors rejected it in part because it included legal releases for prominent former members of the US Olympic committee and didn’t disclose who, if anyone, at the organisation was aware of Nassar’s horrifying abuse.
Rachael Denhollander, the former gymnast who was the first person to publicly accuse Nassar of sexual abuse in August 2016 as part of an Indianapolis Star investigation, blasted the settlement at the time.
“Sponsors of these organisations need to know that the worst thing they can do for survivors, athletes and the next generation, is to keep these broken organisations alive,” she wrote on Twitter in February.
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