Michigan Supreme Court rejects Larry Nassar's appeal

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

The Michigan Supreme Court on Friday rejected hearing an appeal from serial sex offender Larry Nassar, concluding that the case presented a "close question" regarding the conduct of Circuit Judge Rosemarie Aquilina during his sentencing in Ingham County.

The court expressed concern with her conduct, but wrote that “We decline to expend additional judicial resources and further subject the victims in this case to additional trauma where the questions at hand present nothing more than an academic exercise,” the court said in a two-page order. 

"We are not persuaded that the questions presented should be reviewed by this court," according to the high court's opinion.

"I just signed your death warrant," Aquilina told Nassar at his sentencing in January 2018.

Rachael Denhollander, the first woman to publicly accuse Nassar, tweeted that the ordeal was behind the victims. Hundreds of women and young girls came forward in the months after she spoke out.

"It's over," Denhollander tweeted. "Almost six years after I filed the police report, it's finally over."

The appeal by Larry Nassar had been based on the conduct of Ingham County Circuit Judge Rosemarie Aquilina during his trial.

Nassar's court-appointed lawyer was not available. But Jonathan Sacks, director of the State Appellate Defender Office, said lawyers in his office were reviewing the order.

"We are gratified that the entire Michigan Supreme Court expressed concern about the conduct of the judge," Sacks said.

Aquilina said Friday that "there were reasons for everything I did."

She said her sentence was not predetermined, and it was the lowest sentence for the seven counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct, which carry life sentences, to which Nassar pleaded guilty. His plea agreement set sentencing to 25 and 40 years in prison on the low end and life in prison on the high end.

Aquilina said she was happy that the more than 150 women who gave victim impact statements in her courtroom over seven days of testimony in 2018 may be able to put the case behind them. 

"I’m relieved for the girls, and glad there is closure so they can move on," Aquilina told The Detroit News. "So many things that happened. They deserve to have closure in every aspect of this case so they can truly focus on healing and all the happiness they deserve."

Nassar is the former Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics doctor accused of sexually assaulting hundreds of young women, teenage and prepubescent girls under the guise of medical treatment over more than two decades. Most said he digitally penetrated them without gloves, lubricant or consent 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.

He pleaded guilty to 10 counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct in Ingham and Eaton counties involving nine victims, and to federal charges in connection with collecting 37,000 images and videos of child pornography on his computer. He is serving an effective life sentence.

After Nassar was sentenced in all three courts, he launched and lost several appeals aiming to reduce his prison time. He appealed his 2017 sentence of 40-175 years issued by IAquilina. It amounted to an effective life sentence in prison for Nassar, who is now 58 years old.

Though Nassar admitted guilt, he argued his Ingham County sentence was invalid due to Aquilina's bias based on comments she made during his sentencing. He claimed that even before the sentencing hearing began, Aquilina had already decided to impose the maximum allowed by the sentence agreement.

But the Supreme Court noted in its order that the range of concurrent 40 to 175 years "were within the range agreed upon in the parties’ plea and sentencing agreement."

In December, the Michigan Court of Appeals in a split 2-1 decision denied an appeal from Nassar. The majority criticized Aquilina but said Nassar admitted guilt, received a fair sentence and Aquilina did not show bias.

Nassar's court-appointed attorney appealed the decision to the state Supreme Court.

The high court said the case presented "a close question" about Nassar's motion for resentencing.

"We share the concerns of both the Court of Appeals majority and dissent about the conduct of the sentencing judge in this case, and seriously question whether the majority committed error by affirming the trial court’s denial of defendant’s motion for disqualification and motion for resentencing," according to the court's order.

But the court said Nassar's claims "suffer from preservation problems, and to prove that judicial disqualification is warranted requires defendant to shoulder a heavy burden."

"Second, we conclude that the jurisprudential significance of any holding from this Court would be seriously limited, as the question of this judge’s impartiality or bias arises in markedly fact-specific circumstances, involving an unusually high-profile and highly scrutinized case, and a unique sentencing procedure," the opinion said.