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Victims in Larry Nassar Abuse Case Find a Fierce Advocate: the Judge

And, in an extraordinary session streamed live on the internet over several days, she has opened her courtroom to any victim who wishes to speak, for however long she wishes to speak. That goes for their coaches and parents, too.

“Leave your pain here,” Ms. Aquilina told one young woman, “and go out and do your magnificent things.”

Stephen Gillers, a professor of law at New York University, said that although judges are often thought of as unbiased and impartial, it is important to remember that this is a sentencing hearing, not a trial. Dr. Nassar, who has already received a 60-year federal sentence for a child pornography conviction, pleaded guilty to several state sexual assault charges and will be sentenced after the “victim impact statements” are finished.

“At a sentencing, a judge can say and is encouraged to say just what she thinks,” Mr. Gillers said in a telephone interview. “What’s unusual here is that the number of victims who are willing to speak has given the judge more than 100 opportunities to do that.”

Sure enough, Ms. Aquilina has punctuated each and every victim statement with some words of her own — a mix of praise, gratitude and support for the women who have come forward to address the court and, in many instances, Dr. Nassar himself, who has been a captive to it all from the witness box. Occasionally he has teared up but mostly he sits passively, staring down at papers in front of him.

Ms. Aquilina’s unconventional approach has not elicited any discernible criticism, but she has generated attention. Not only has she opened the floodgates to emotional testimony in a very pronounced way, but she seems determined to lend her voice, shedding any pretense of judicial distance.

Several victims — and their parents — have thanked Ms. Aquilina, including Doug Powell, whose daughter Kassie spoke out last week as one of Dr. Nassar’s many accusers.

“Judge Aquilina, I applaud you,” Mr. Powell said after his daughter addressed the court. “We applaud you. This room applauds you.”

The use of victim impact statements has generated debate in sentencing hearings before juries, as some scholars have questioned the tactic as an obvious emotional ploy meant to sway the panel for a tougher term.

But in this case, there is no jury and, between the federal sentence and the pending state one, the judge had previously indicated that Dr. Nassar, 54, will probably die in prison.

And so she has turned it into a rolling demand for accountability by the people who were supposed to protect the victims.

“The severe nature of the crime was compounded many times over by the failure of adults who knew or should have known that crimes were occurring to take action to protect the victims,” said Janice Nadler, a law professor at Northwestern University who has written about victim impact statements.

She added: “Permitting the victim impact statements of all individuals who Nassar abused is the government’s opportunity to counter Nassar’s message: to demonstrate to the victims that they matter, that their lives matter, that the state stands ready to impose the punishment that Nassar deserves.”

Ms. Aquilina locally has a reputation for blunt talk and wearing cowboy boots under her robes.

A 2014 profile in the Washtenaw County Legal News said her nickname in the military was “Barracuda Aquilina” and reported her role in several high-profile cases, including a ruling in 2013 that Detroit’s bankruptcy filing violated the state constitution. She sent a copy of her ruling to President Barack Obama.

“My message to Obama was: ‘Get ready to cough up some federal money. This is coming,’’ she told the paper.

When Dr. Nassar sent Ms. Aquilina a letter last week complaining about his emotional distress hearing the testimony, she responded with a withering attack.

“Spending four or five days listening to them is significantly minor,” she said, “considering the hours of pleasure you had at their expense and ruining their lives.”

Photo

Judge Aquilina rejected a request from Dr. Nassar, foreground, to curtail the testimony of more than 100 of his victims during his sentencing hearing.

Credit
Brendan Mcdermid/Reuters

Ms. Aquilina has repeatedly assured the women that she is listening to them and that “the whole world” is listening to them, too.

Ms. Lorencen, for example, arrived at Ingham County Circuit Court in Lansing, Mich., on Monday morning fully aware that dozens of other young women had come before her. It was the start of the fifth day in the sentencing hearing, but Ms. Lorencen, 22, wanted to be sure that her voice was still heard.

“I feel that many of the things I’m going to say are similar to what has already been said by 100 other victims,” Ms. Lorencen said as she read from prepared notes. “We know there are well over that many. But we cannot let that dilute the importance of each of our stories.”

Ms. Aquilina had anticipated that the hearing would conclude after four days. But over the course of the proceedings, more women who have accused Dr. Nassar of abuse have come forward wanting to deliver their own statements. Many of them have said that they felt empowered by what was happening at the court.

Ms. Aquilina made it clear from the start that she would accommodate them all, welcoming each to her courtroom the same way.

“Thank you,” she says. “What would you like me to know?”

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