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Stop Celebrating Larry Nassar's Judge. Her Comments Were Wildly Inappropriate

Judge Rosemarie Aquilina looks towards Larry Nassar as a victim gives her impact statement during the seventh day of Larry Nassar's sentencing hearing Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2018, in Lansing, Mich.
 (Carlos Osorio/AP)MoreCloseclosemore
Judge Rosemarie Aquilina looks towards Larry Nassar as a victim gives her impact statement during the seventh day of Larry Nassar's sentencing hearing Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2018, in Lansing, Mich. (Carlos Osorio/AP)

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Even the vilest criminal defendant among us should be tried and sentenced before a judge who doesn’t gloat, doesn’t boast, and doesn’t appear to be auditioning for celebrity status. Sadly, the sentencing of Lawrence Nassar for an almost unimaginable record of sexual abuse has been overshadowed by just such a judge. The appearance and the actuality of a dispassionate system of justice — never more important than in cases like this — has been degraded and diminished as a result.

After an extraordinary hearing, in which more than 150 young women testified to victimization and molestation at the hands of Nassar, Michigan Circuit Judge Rosemarie Aquilina sentenced the former doctor to a minimum of 40 and a maximum of 175 years in prison.

Nassar, 54 years of age, had previously received a sentence of 60 years for possession of child pornography. Wednesday’s sentence has drawn strong reaction — both positive and negative. Was it really necessary to ensure that Nassar would not be released from prison even at the unlikely age of 104? Conversely, was it not entirely fitting that the horrendous abuse visited on girls as young as 6 should result in a life sentence — however formulated? Criminal prosecution, after all, is intended not only to punish wrongdoing and provide deterrence — it is a public affirmation of our values as a society.

While the length of the sentence delivered by the judge has been criticized, there is nothing improper or illegal in it. On the other hand, the words uttered by the judge, and the tone which she employed, were unquestionably improper:

“It is my privilege ... to sentence you to 40 years … 40 years, just so you know and can count it off on your calendar, is 480 months. The tail end — because I need to send a message to the parole board in the event somehow... you survive the [60 year sentence and also the 40 years]. Sir, I’m giving you 175 years which is 2,100 months. I’ve just signed your death warrant.”

In the courtroom, words matter. Words spoken by judges, in whom we repose considerable power, matter especially. Criminal justice should be as impersonal as we fallible humans can make it. Depriving a convicted defendant of liberty is not an “honor and privilege;” it is a duty, and it should be a difficult one regardless of the severity of the crime. The relish with which Judge Aquilina can be heard emphasizing how many months her 40 year sentence comprises (on the dubious claim that the defendant, educated as a physician, could not multiply 40 x 12) is unseemly and wrong.

“I’ve just signed your death warrant” demonstrates a level of gloating and animosity that has no place on the bench.

The purpose of victim statements, recently affirmed here in Massachusetts by our Supreme Judicial Court, is to provide collective acknowledgment of the harm done to an individual and to provide an aspect of healing. Too many victims remain victimized by their own shame, however illogical. We hope that the opportunity to speak provides release. The objections to victim statements voiced by thoughtful members of the defense bar reflect the concern that judges, human like the rest of us, will be unduly influenced by the emotional impact of an eloquent and heartfelt presentation. By moving center stage and voicing her personal opinion, Judge Aquilina demonstrated that this remains a concern.

On a related issue it may well be relevant that, unlike Massachusetts, Michigan chooses its judges by statewide election. Aquilina was last elected in 2008, and will need to be re-elected in 2020 if she desires to remain on the bench.

A defendant, however “precise, calculated, manipulated, devious, despicable” (as the judge described Nassar in another portion of her remarks), is entitled to be free from the notion that the length of imprisonment is related to the emotional reaction of a particular judge. Because drama is often inherent in court proceedings — and certainly in horrendous cases such as this one — the judge’s role as a neutral arbitrator is vital. Society, including victims of a sexual predator, should be confident that criminal penalties are awarded by the book.

“I’ve just signed your death warrant” demonstrates a level of gloating and animosity that has no place on the bench.

Correction: An earlier version of this essay misquoted Judge Aquilina. We regret the error and have updated the piece.

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Andrew Grainger Cognoscenti contributor
Andrew Grainger is a retired associate justice of the Massachusetts Appeals Court. He is designated a senior Fulbright scholar by the U.S. Department of State, and has taught legal courses in numerous foreign universities as well as locally.

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