MSU doctor pleads guilty to more charges

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

Charlotte — The fight to convict Larry Nassar — the now infamous Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics doctor accused of sexually assaulting young athletes — is over.

It ended Wednesday when Nassar, 54, admitted for a second time that he sexually assaulted young girls, mostly gymnasts, after long denying it and calling the contact medical treatment.

He pleaded guilty in Eaton County Circuit Court to three first-degree criminal sexual conduct charges brought by the Michigan Attorney General’s office involving three women, who said he digitally penetrated them while cloaking it as a medical treatment. At the time of the incidents, which occurred at Geddert’s Twistar USA Gymnastics in Diamondale between 2009-11, one of the victims was younger than the age of 13, while the other two were between the ages 13-15.

“Guilty,” said Nassar, when asked by Eaton County Judge Janice Cunningham how he pleaded to each of the charges.

Nassar’s admission on Wednesday was the third time he has admitted guilt in the case that emerged 15 months after the claims against Nassar emerged publicly in a newspaper, but years after they occurred.

Last week during a pivotal moment, Nassar said for the first time that he sexually assaulted girls between 1998 and 2015 when he pleaded guilty to seven counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct brought by the state in Ingham County Circuit Court.

Nassar also pleaded guilty last summer to federal charges of possession of 37,000 images of child pornography that were uncovered on his work computer when the law enforcement began its investigation of him in late summer 2016.

The plea agreements in Eaton and Ingham counties wrap up the state case against Nassar, and he will avoid a trial that was scheduled to commence on Monday.

The pleas involving criminal sexual behavior include 10 charges involving nine women between the two counties. But more than more than 140 others have joined a civil lawsuit against Nassar, and 125 complained to MSU officials. Several Olympic gymnasts, including Aly Raisman, McKayla Maroney and Gabby Douglas, also claimed during television interviews or on social media that he assaulted them.

Nearly all said that Nassar digitally penetrated them while treating them for injuries. In some cases, the treatments lasted up to 45 minutes. At times, their parents were in the room while he was abusing them, but the young women said he positioned himself so their parents couldn’t see what he was doing.

What is still not clear is how long Nassar will spend time in prison, but that will be addressed soon. On Dec. 7, he will be sentenced on the federal child pornography charges.

He will be sentenced in Ingham County on Jan. 12, or Jan. 19, if needed. His sentencing there will occur after all victims who want to speak give impact statements including the 125 victims who reported to MSU. He will then be sentenced on Jan. 31 in Eaton County. All victims will also be allowed to make statements before that sentencing.

The plea agreements in Eaton and Ingham County state that the minimum sentencing range is between 25-40 years, but judges in both cases have told Nassar that it will be up to their discretion.

During Wednesday’s hearing, Nassar said little, other than to respond to the questions posed by Cunningham and one of his attorneys, Shannon Smith, who read each of the charges publicly and asked Nassar if he agreed that he was guilty.

“When that happened, as her doctor, were you in a position of authority over (her) and used that authority to constructively coerce her to submit to the penetration?” Smith asked Nassar.

“Yes,” he replied.

“Do you also agree, sir, that for each of these victims and for all of these counts that your finger was not gloved?” Cunningham asked Nassar.

“Yes,” Nassar said.

Cunningham also asked if Nassar admitted that this procedure was not medically accepted, for his own purpose and all the victims were too young to give consent.

“Yes,” Nassar said.

Assistant Attorney General Angela Povilaitis said her office reached out to all 125 victims to share the terms of Nassar’s plea agreement before the hearing.

“All victims are in agreement with this plea,” Povilaitis said. “They are very happy with the plea.”

Like Nassar’s Ingham County plea agreement, the plea agreement in Eaton County included an agreement that the Michigan Attorney General's Office not file additional charges against Nassar involving 125 cases alleging sexual abuse. He also will have a lifetime of electronic monitoring.

Few victims were in the courtroom on Wednesday, and those who were there declined to speak afterward.

Cunningham did not allow Nassar to speak during the hearing. But last week when he pleaded guilty to sexual assault in Ingham County, he apologized, and later came under fire from victims.

“I think this is important, that what I’ve done today to help move the community forward and away from all the hurting,” Nassar said. “Let the healing start.

“For all those involved ... I’m so horribly sorry that this was like a match that turned into a forest fire out of control. I pray the rosary every day for forgiveness.”

He said he wanted the victims to heal.

“I have no animosity toward anyone,” Nassar said. “I just want healing. That’s the biggest thing. We need to move forward.”

But many victims scoffed at Nassar’s apology last week.

Jessica Smith, a ballet dancer who says she was sexually assaulted by Nassar when she was 17, said afterward that she rolled her eyes during Nassar’s apology and didn’t find it comforting.

“I decide when I heal; he has no power over us as survivors,” said Smith, who started a Facebook page, Me Too MSU. “

After that hearing, many said the fight to convict Nassar might be over, but the effort to find justice for those who enabled Nassar, including MSU, is still underway.

Many are trying to bring attention again on the need for an investigation into MSU’s role, saying administrators could have stopped Nassar if they had addressed complaints about him that emerged at the university in 1997 or they had followed Title IX mandatory reporting laws instead of fumbling a 2014 report that allowed him to escape scrutiny. All want to know who knew what and when at MSU, and they are calling to see an internal report that MSU has said it will not release.

Among those who are still calling for justice beyond Nassar is Rachael Denhollander, whose story was the first to gain traction and open the floodgates of other victims to come forward when she reported to authorities and a newspaper about Nassar’s assaults on her when she was a 15-year-old gymnast.

“I'm grateful to see justice begin, but I remain deeply disturbed that the people who kept Larry in a position to abuse for so long, have yet to take responsibility for what happened under their watch,” said Denhollander, now 32. “For victims to receive full justice, and to ensure another predator doesn't rise to take Larry's place, these dynamics must be dealt with.”

MSU did not address the calls for transparency but weighed in on Nassar’s plea by posting an online statement on Wednesday.

“The convictions of Larry Nassar on Nov. 22 in Ingham County and Nov. 29 in Eaton County on state criminal sexual conduct charges represent another important step toward justice for the victims,” spokesman Jason Cody said. “As President Simon has said, we recognize the pain sexual violence causes and deeply regret any time someone in our community experiences it. It takes tremendous courage for victims of sexual violence to come forward.

“We are grateful for the efforts of the entire MSU Police Department, specifically the detectives in the Special Victim’s Unit, who worked diligently and tirelessly since August 2016 on building the criminal case that led to Nassar’s conviction” the statement continued. “We also greatly appreciate the efforts put forth by the Michigan Attorney General’s office as they prosecuted the case. This cooperation was vital to the conviction.”