Nassar judge told women: 'This is your moment'

Francis X. Donnelly, and Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

Lansing — While sentencing Larry Nassar, Ingham County Circuit Judge Rosemarie Aquilina said repeatedly the case wasn’t about her.

Judge Rosemarie Aquilina tosses aside a letter defendant Larry Nassar wrote, in which he accused her of seeking the spotlight during his trial.

But others in the courtroom begged to differ.

To her supporters, the 59-year-old judge was a forceful, compassionate advocate for the more than 150 girls and women sexually abused by the MSU sports doctor during supposed medical treatment.

To detractors, she seemed to thoroughly enjoy her time in the national limelight.

Nassar, who cut a meek figure during the seven-day sentencing hearing, criticized the judge even as he waited to be sentenced by her. In a letter, he accused her of having him sit in the witness box so TV cameras would be pointed at her.

Aquilina read the letter and then theatrically tossed it aside.

“This isn’t even worth the paper it’s written on, sir,” she said.

Several victims said she was the ideal arbiter for the occasion.

“I fully believe God made her a judge to be on this case,” said Jennifer Hayes, who was a figure skater when she was abused by Nassar.

Aquilina sentenced the former doctor at Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics on Wednesday to 40 to 175 years in prison.

During the sentencing, Aquilina was part judge, part therapist, part champion of the victims. As former patients described how they were affected by the abuse, Aquilina punctuated their remarks with her own supportive comments.

She alternately lauded and consoled and thanked the witnesses for sharing their pain.

“It’s ironic that your name is Sterling,” she told Sterling Riethman, 25, a diver at Denison University who was treated by Nassar at MSU. “You are a sterling, aren’t you? You are destined to do sterling things in the world.”

She also had the young women laughing, making jokes at her own expense. During the final moments of sentencing, Aquilina noted her overall lack of interest in sports despite her recent attempt to coach youth soccer.

Aquilina’s decision to allow as many victims, and their parents and coaches, to talk as long as they wanted had a cathartic effect, said victims. Especially given how the victims felt no one at MSU or USA Gymnastics had ever listened to their complaints.

The court originally expected 88 victims to speak over four days but, as others heard the testimony, they wanted to add their own.

One was Taryn Look, 31, a Bloomfield Hills native who lives in Los Angeles. She competed in rhythmic gymnastics and was on the U.S. National Team. Nassar treated her from 1999 to 2001.

Look’s statement was read Tuesday, but after seeing others testify in person, she wanted to do the same, she said.

“I knew I had to come and support these girls,” she said. “We are so thankful of how (Aquilina) is handling this with such sensitivity.”

Larissa Boyce's impact statement brings a look of dismay to the face of Judge Rosemarie Aquilina as victim's speak about Larry Nassar on Friday.

As much as she heaped praise on the women, the judge spit venom at the pedophile. When Nassar claimed there were extenuating circumstances in his crimes, Aquilina pointedly asked him whether he had pleaded guilty, which he had. “I wouldn’t send my dogs to you, sir,” she told him Wednesday.

In praising the women, Aquilina frequently referenced her own life, including her 20 years in the Michigan Army National Guard.

She referred to the witnesses as sister survivor warriors.

“I’d be proud to have you as my leader, after seeing how you lead your army,” she told former gymnast Lindsey Lemke, 22, of Holt, who trained at a local gym and was on the MSU gymnastics team.

Aquilina has been a circuit judge for nine years. She teaches law at MSU and Cooley Law School.

She also just published her second novel, a crime thriller. The sometime writer was eloquent in saluting the women abused by Nassar.

“You came in with a backpack of bricks and they’re gone, right? Amen!” she told victim Christine Harrison.

At the end of Nassar’s sentencing, Aquilina noted that she has a large stack of messages from media wanting to interview her. But she said she wouldn’t talk to reporters unless she was accompanied by victims.

“You started out by saying you weren’t sure if I needed to hear another story,” she told one victim. “But it’s not just me listening. It’s the world. This is your moment. Tell them.”

Staff Writer Kim Kozlowski contributed.