Meet Rosemarie Aquilina – The judge being hailed as the quiet hero of the Larry Nassar sex abuse trial

She has helped and supported victims deliver excruciating testimony

Andrew Buncombe
New York
Wednesday 24 January 2018 17:38 GMT
Judge Rosemarie Aquilina helps support victims of Larry Nassar throughout case

The attitude of Rosemarie Aquilina, the judge overseeing the sentencing of disgraced former gymnastics coach Larry Nassar, has been very simple: if the women Nassar hurt and whose lives he wrecked wanted their day in court to confront him, then they should have the opportunity.

As a result, over the best part of a week, around 150 girls and young women have taken the witness stand in Ms Aquilina’s Michigan courtroom, turned to Nassar and allowed the agony to pour out. For every victim and survivor, Ms Aquilina has been there with words of encouragement and support.

When Olympic gymnast Jordyn Wieber, part of the gold-medal winning team at the 2012 Summer Games in London, appeared last week, she had tears in her eyes.

“You have an Olympian voice. People will listen to you. I’ve listened to you,” the judge told her. “You are really very strong, not just as an athlete, but as a woman, as a survivor. I know you’ll get past this because of that strength, because you had the strength to come here and talk. It’s really important.”

To another young woman who had just taken the stand at the Ingham County Circuit Court and spoken of the abuse she suffered, the judge told her: “Leave your pain here, and go out and do your magnificent things.”

On Wednesday, Judge Aquilina told the 54-year former doctor he would spend up to 175 years in jail, a sentence that added to the 60 years he had already received for child pornography charges.

“You don’t deserve to walk outside a prison again,” Ms Aquilina told Nassar. “You have done nothing to control these urges, and wherever you go will be destruction.”

She added: “I have signed your death warrant.”

It was originally anticipated that 88 victims would address the court. As people took the stand and spoke, others felt encouraged to do so, supported by what gold medal winner Aly Raisman called the “army of survivors”. As a result, the time set aside for people to speak was increased. By the time the judge sentenced Nassar, more than 160 victims or a family member had either addressed the court or had their statements read.

Aly Raisman tells Larry Nassar 'you are nothing' during sentencing hearing

Amanda Cormier, who is pregnant, said she dreaded family holidays because being touched and hugged triggered anxiety. She told the court that after being abused by Nassar when she was just 15, she had lost her interest in writing songs.

“It seems to me, after this, you can finish writing,” the judge told her. “You found your voice. It’s a strong, effective, brave voice, and you have a child coming. Maybe what you need to do is start and finish a lullaby.”

Maddie Johnson, Jordyn Wieber, Kyle Stephens, Emily Morales, Aly Raisman and Bailey Lorencen during their victim impact statements
Maddie Johnson, Jordyn Wieber, Kyle Stephens, Emily Morales, Aly Raisman and Bailey Lorencen during their victim impact statements (Reuters/AP/AFP/Getty)

Many of those who spoke expressed anger and fury. Former national gymnastics champion Mattie Larson told Nassar: “You took complete advantage of my innocence. Your kindness was simply a ploy to molest me every chance you got. I can’t even put into words how much I f***king hate you.”

The judge told the court that Nassar’s crimes would not go unpunished.

“This monster is going to wither away – like the Wizard of Oz where they poured water and the witch withers away,” she said. “Rehabilitation here is not in the cards.”

To another woman, Rachael Denhollander, Ms Aquilina said: “You made all of these voices matter. You are the bravest person I have ever had in my courtroom.”

To the gymnast Bailey Lorencen, the judge said: “The military has not yet come up with fibre as strong as you – Mattel ought to make toys so that little girls can look at you and say, ‘I want to be her’. Thank you so much for being here, and for your strength.”

The 59-year-old judge, who has found herself in a national spotlight, has also written crime novels and served 20 years in the Michigan Army National Guard where her nickname was reportedly “Barracuda Aquilina”.

The New York Times said several victims and their families have thanked her for permitting them to speak.

“Judge Aquilina, I applaud you,” Doug Powell, whose daughter Kassie Powell, spoke to the court. “We applaud you. This room applauds you.”

The one person Ms Aquilina has had little time for is Nassar, who began serving as the national squad’s official doctor in 1996 and was fired in 2015 when USA Gymnastics said it became aware of the claims made against him. In the spring of 2017, the organisation’s president, Steve Penny, resigned amid accusations of negligence. Earlier this week, three current board members resigned.

As the sentencing hearing started, Nassar sent a six-page letter to the judge claiming it had become too difficult for him “mentally” to continue to listen to his victims. Ms Aquilina told him it was not worth “the paper it’s written on”.

“There’s no truth in there, it’s delusional,” she told Nassar. “I didn’t orchestrate this, you did. Spending four or five days listening to them is significantly minor considering the hours of pleasure you’ve had at their expense and ruining their lives.”

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