Judge in Nassar case: Quit the name-calling

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Larry Nassar should face trial in a courtroom, not on Facebook, an Ingham County judge said Wednesday as she signed an order restricting public comments by witnesses and their attorneys in a criminal case against the former USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University sports doctor.

Nassar, facing multiple sexual assault charges at the state and federal level, appeared in Ingham County Circuit Court as his attorneys urged Judge Rosemarie Aquilina to crack down on comments they said could hurt Nassar’s ability to receive a fair trial before an impartial jury.

Among other things, the order requires witnesses and their attorneys to refer to Nassar by his name, which defense attorney Shannon Smith said will preclude them “from referring to him as a monster, a serial pedophile, predator — all of the other terms that some of these lawyers are using.”

The order also restricts attorneys or witnesses from making public statements about Nassar’s guilt or innocence, strengths and weaknesses of the case against him, truthfulness of other attorneys or the credibility of witnesses.

“The court has great concerns over the postings on social media,” said Aquilina, stressing the constitutional guarantee that defendants are considered innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

“I am frightened not just for defendant but also the victims here with what’s been coined as the ‘mob mentality.’ I do not want opinions to be cemented into people’s minds before there’s been evidence, evidence that comports with rules the Supreme Court has given us.”

Smith filed the order, but Aquilina modified it by hand.

Nassar’s attorneys had requested it apply to information and commentary concerning “any case” involving Nassar. The version Aquilina signed said it applies to “all parties, all current and potential witnesses and counsel for all current and potential witnesses related to this case.”

Aquilina said directly applying the order to attorneys and witnesses in separate civil cases against Nassar could impinge on their First Amendment rights to free speech, but she made clear she will seek to crack down on comments that could influence a jury in her court.

“If I have to put a gag order on somebody, I will do so individually, because they cannot interfere with this case,” she said. “If they want to trample on somebody’s right, the victims or the defendant, they’re going to have to deal with this court.”

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette’s office, which is prosecuting Nassar in both criminal cases, did not sign the order and declined to weigh in.

“We take no position, and we defer to the court,” assistant Attorney General Angela Povilaitis told the judge.

Aquilina signed a separate order two weeks ago limiting comments by attorneys, including Schuette, who has referred to Nassar as a “monster.” The new order applies to current and potential witnesses and their personal attorneys.

Nassar is currently charged in four criminal cases, has been sued by 78 people in civil court and has at least 100 accusers, according to his attorneys.

He faces three counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct in the case before Aquilina, 13 counts in Eaton County, 23 counts in a separate Ingham County case and child pornography and obstruction of justice charges in federal court.

Nassar’s attorneys filed an emergency motion on Monday seeking to limit public discourse in the case, alleging attorneys for accusers in civil cases had leaked information about a Title IX investigation by Michigan State University and made a series of explosive comments about Nassar on social media.

The motion highlighted Facebook comments by David Mittleman, an attorney with the Okemos-based Church Wyble law firm, which is representing several alleged victims suing Nassar, Michigan State and USA Gymnastics. In a series of posts, he called Nassar “dangerous” and a “serial pedophile predator.”

Attorney Mick Grewal, who works with Mittleman at Church Wyble, called Aquilina’s order “vague and broad,” saying he is not sure if the order applies to his clients or colleagues because they are not part of the criminal case.

“If it tries to bind my clients from their ability to give free speech, and they were sexually assaulted, I believe it’s unconstitutional,” Grewal said.

Aquilina acknowledged her jurisdictional limitations in signing the modified order, which specifies that it is binding for attorneys and witnesses who are or may be related to the case before her. She asked attorneys for the defendant and state to distribute it to relevant parties.

The judge also noted her personal connections to Michigan State, where Nassar was employed. She has taught classes at the university and her daughter works in public relations for the school.

Nassar, his attorneys and the Michigan Attorney General’s Office said they had no objections to Aquilina presiding over the case.

“I can be fair and impartial,” Aquilina said.