On Wednesday, Judge Rosemarie Aquilina sentenced Larry Nassar to between 40 to 175 years in a Michigan prison. Nassar, a former doctor to Olympic gymnasts, pleaded guilty to sexually abusing seven girls and has been accused of molesting many more, with victims as young as 6. He already pleaded guilty to child pornography charges in federal court. Nassar will die behind bars, and he deserves to.
Aquilina has received widespread and well-earned praise throughout the hearings, supporting Nassar’s more than 150 victims as they read their extraordinary victim impact statements. But Aquilina drew some criticism on Wednesday for her own remarks at Nassar’s sentencing. HuffPost’s Melissa Jeltsen questioned the judge’s decision to tell Nassar, “I just signed your death warrant.” Jeltsen and others also expressed alarm at a troubling aside implying Nassar deserved to be raped in prison. “Even criminals do not deserve to be sexually assaulted,” Jeltsen wrote. “I’d prefer my justice with a little less editorializing.”
Did Aquilina cross a line? Before answering that question, it’s important to remember the circumstances of her address to Nassar. Aquilina was not conducting a trial; there was no jury for her to influence unduly. She also wasn’t entertaining some motion that required her to play the role of neutral umpire. Nassar pleaded guilty. In the eyes of the law, he has admitted to his crimes, and the only question that remained on Wednesday was what punishment he should receive.
Yet even that was largely a theoretical issue. Nassar was convicted on federal child pornography charges in December; a judge sentenced him to 60 years in prison, which he will serve before doing time in Michigan. Thus, even if Aquilina had given Nassar a lighter penalty—he agreed to a sentence floor of 25 to 40 years in his plea deal—he still would have died in prison.
It is far from unusual for judges to express their personal opinions at sentencing. These reflections can cut both ways: Judges might proclaim disgust at the depravity of a crime or note with remorse that mandatory minimum laws require excessive sentences. Here, Aquilina devoted a significant portion of her statement to the question of rehabilitation and contrition—whether Nassar feels remorse and seeks to atone for his crimes. “I find that you don’t get it,” the judge told Nassar. “That you’re a danger. You remain a danger. I’m a judge who believes in life and rehabilitation when life and rehabilitation is possible. … I don’t find that’s possible with you.”
That sentiment sounds quite fair in light of a letter Nassar submitted to the court. In that astonishing document, Nassar asserted that he was “a good doctor,” claiming that his abuse was “medical, not sexual,” and complaining: “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. The media is sensationalizing this.” These are not the words of a remorseful man.
Unfortunately, Aquilina chose to supplement her reflections on Nassar’s monstrous lack of repentance with a statement indicating she hoped he would suffer like his victims did:
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.
It is hugely inappropriate for a judge to suggest that a criminal defendant, no matter how heinous, be subjected to a grotesque and unconstitutional punishment.
Still, it’s easy to see what drove Aquilina to make this comment. Consider the events that preceded Wednesday’s hearing. Pursuant to Michigan law, Aquilina invited Nassar’s victims to read their remarkable statements one by one. She heard, in graphic detail, the horrors that he visited upon an unthinkable number of women. At sentencing, judges must apply the law without prejudice or favor, but Michigan law permits—indeed, encourages—them to consider the victims’ perspectives. Aquilina did precisely that. And, because she is only human, she said something she shouldn’t have said.
Aquilina’s courtroom wasn’t a dispassionate venue, and it shouldn’t have been. She was charged with conducting a public examination of sexual abuse victims’ pain, as well as an interrogation of a monster’s motives. We can never really know what drove Nassar to commit his odious crimes, just as we can never truly understand the agony of his victims. We are left, then, with what few tools the criminal justice system gives us to adjudicate an atrocity of this magnitude. Aquilina seized upon those tools to empower more than 150 women to confront their abuser, then used them herself to articulate the law’s contempt for Nassar’s offenses. The result was impassioned and imperfect. It was also what Larry Nassar deserved.