Court to review one of Larry Nassar's sentences

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News
Judge Rosemarie Aquilina.

The Michigan Court of Appeals has agreed to review two issues in the sentencing appeal of serial pedophile Larry Nassar — and both involve Ingham County Judge Rosemarie Aquilina, according to his attorney.

In a one-page decision issued last week, a three-member panel of judges agreed to review two aspects of his appeal in Ingham County, where he was sentenced to 40-175 years in prison for criminal sexual conduct. However, the judges declined to review issues raised in his appeal in Eaton County, where he was sentenced to 40-125 years, said one of Nassar's attorneys, Malaika Ramsey-Heath.

"The Court of Appeals agreed to review the question of whether Judge Aquilina should have been allowed to decide the Motion for Resentencing, and whether Judge Aquilina was biased or created an appearance of impropriety, and whether either of those things entitles Dr. Nassar to resentencing before a difference judge," Ramsey-Heath, an attorney with the State Appellate Defender Office, said in a statement.

"We are pleased that the cases have moved along to the next step toward an ultimate determination of whether the judges followed the law in imposing sentences in these cases," she said.

Ramsey-Heath added that the next step will be to file an appeal in the Court of Appeals.

"Both sides have the ability to appeal decisions of the Court of Appeals to the Michigan Supreme Court," she said, but did not indicate if she would appeal on behalf of Nassar.

Aquilina could not be immediately reached. In the past she has declined comment, saying she would speak after the appeal process is finished.

But Andrea Bitely, spokeswoman for Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, who charged Nassar, said the disgraced sports doctor is continuing to hurt victims by challenging his sentences.

"While Nassar is entitled to the judicial process, the continued appeals and attention he receives as a result continue to revictimize the survivors of the assaults for which he pleaded guilty,” Bitely said.

Nassar is a former Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics doctor who admitted that a procedure he performed on female patients had no medical purpose and was for his own sexual gratification. 

Nassar pleaded guilty to 10 counts of criminal sexual misconduct, and during his two sentencing hearings, more than 250 young women testified in about his abuse, which stretched over more than 20 years.

In addition to his sentences on the state charges, a federal judge gave Nassar 60 years in prison for possessing 37,000 images of child pornography. All of the sentences would be served consecutively, meaning that Nassar, 55, would be imprisoned for life.

Nassar began serving his sentences in February at U.S. Penitentiary, Tucson, Arizona, but was transferred six months later after an assault and is now housed in Coleman II, a high security federal prison in Florida.  

He has had lawyers file appeals in all three courts in an effort to reduce his prison time. His arguments include requesting that his sentences run concurrently as opposed to consecutively. 

His appeal efforts started in May with his federal sentence. The attorney representing him in the federal appeal, Amy Lee Copeland of Georgia, argued that the court erred in calculating his 60-year sentence and said it is unreasonable for it to run consecutively with two other prison sentences for criminal sexual misconduct involving minors. But Nassar lost his federal appeal in August.

Ramsey-Heath, along with Jacqueline McCann, also of the State Appellate Defender Office, filed appeals of Nassar's Ingham and Eaton county sentences in July and August in an effort to reduce his prison time by getting it to run concurrently with the federal sentence.

In the Ingham County appeal, Nassar's lawyers tried to disqualify Aquilina, arguing in court documents that she was not impartial.

Ramsey-Heath and McCann argued in court documents that Aquilina made numerous statements during his sentencing hearing that indicated "she had already decided to impose the maximum allowed by the sentence agreement even before the sentencing hearing began." 

The sentencing agreement, reached after Nassar pleaded guilty to seven counts of criminal sexual conduct, called for a minimum sentence of 25 to 40 years. Prosecutors had asked for a sentence of 40 to 125 years. 

Aquilina used the hearing, widely reported around the world, to advance her agenda of advocacy for state and national policy initiatives and culture change around sexual discrimination and gender inequity, according to the court documents. 

They court pleadings also imply that Aquilina's handling of the hearing contributed to a climate where Nassar was assaulted during his Eaton County sentencing hearing and again in the federal prison in Arizona.

Aquilina said after she sentenced Nassar that she would not grant any press interviews until the appeal period had expired, according to the court documents, but she gave an interview in April to The Detroit News, saying she supported Nassar's victims. The court documents also say Aquilina went to Los Angeles for the ESPY awards, where nearly 150 young women who had accused Nassar accepted the Arthur Ashe Courage Award.

"It is difficult to imagine a more fervent expression of antagonism than (while on a world stage) wishing one had the power to authorize a person's death, or hope for prison anarchists to inflict cruel and unusual punishment: that is exactly what happened at sentencing in the current case," the attorneys wrote. "It is even more difficult to imagine a more fervent expression of favoritism of the victims than what has been expressed by the sentencing judge in this case."

But after Nassar admitted guilt for sexual misconduct and 156 victims made impact statements, Aquilina's role as a sentencing judge was different than a trial judge, according to court documents filed by a lawyer from Attorney General Bill Schuette's office.

"As the voice of the community, a sentencing judge is permitted to use strong language to redress the victims and express the grievance of society," according to the court documents, filed by assistant attorney general Christopher M. Allen.

"Judge Aquilina ... expressed frustration with Nassar — with his conduct, his unabated pattern of abuse, the enormity of pain it caused the victims, the ripples of hurt to the family of those he abused, and the lack of his sincere remorse — and expressed it in a manner that channeled the community's frustration and moral outrage."

"That her frustration edged toward brief wishes of physical retribution, and that her ultimate sentence was described as a 'death warrant,' are the unfortunate result of the extent and severity of his crimes, which the judge responded to in a graphic manner," according to the document. "In short, Larry Nassar's reprehensible conduct required condemnation." 

In August, Aquilina presided over Nassar's appeal, in which she was asked to recuse herself from hearing the attorneys' motion for a new sentence.

She refused the request, saying she was not biased against him.

Instead, she said that Nassar had "buyer's remorse."

"He want a redo of the plea in the federal system, he wants a redo of the plea in Ingham County and Eaton County," Aquilina said then. "He is really seeking a reduction in time. He is really seeking a second chance."

She also responded to bias allegations lodged by Nassar's attorneys.

"Bias? No. Justice? Yes," Aquilina said. "Could I resentence him? Yes."

Aquilina added that judges resentence all the time when there are errors.

"I have not crossed any boundaries," Aquilina said then. "My statements were made out of clear frustration ... not biased in the way the defense suggests. Out of public safety? Yes. To defuse tension in the courtroom? Yes."

"You can call it bias," Aquilina continued. "I call it a strange situation that I agreed to, the defendant agreed to and the people agreed to ... Now the defendant wants to recalibrate his agreement, an agreement he made not once, not twice but thrice."

A few weeks later, Aquilina denied Nassar's appeal of the 40-175 year sentence she gave him for molesting young girls and women while seeing them as a doctor.

His lawyers then appealed to the Michigan Court of Appeals.