Vengeance from the bench; Did Judge Rosemarie Aquilina Cross A Line When Sentencing Larry Nassar
Widget not in any sidebars
A Judge should give the sentence and say a few words and that is that. Maybe we forget that Judges are normal people and they don’t leave their emotions outside the courtroom. However, still there should still be a line and I believe this Judge clearly crossed it.
Ultimately, there were more than 160 witnesses, including numerous Olympic athletes, who gave gut-wrenching testimony about his effect on their lives.
On Wednesday, Judge Aquilina sentenced Nassar to 40 to 175 years in prison — a sentence she assured him means he will die in prison, since it will be served subsequent to a 60-year sentence in another case for possession of child pornography.
“It is my honor and privilege to sentence you, because, sir, you do not deserve to walk outside of a prison ever again,” she told Nassar “I’ve just signed your death warrant.” She also went so far as to suggest that he deserved to experience the pain of sexual abuse himself.
On the first day of the hearing, she mused about allowing “many people” to sexually assault Nassar if she were permitted to.
She told Nassar, “It is my honor and privilege to sentence you,” “Our Constitution does not allow for cruel and unusual punishment,” she said. “If it did, I have to say, I might allow what he did to all of these beautiful souls ― these young women in their childhood ― I would allow some or many people to do to him what he did to others.”
Nassar’s case comes at a unique and fraught moment, which might explain Aquilina’s bloodthirstiness, though not necessarily excuse it. The country is in the middle of a reckoning over sexual abuse and harassment, largely committed by men and against women, with the #MeToo movement dominating headlines and public discourse.
To be clear, I am not challenging whether the sentence Aquilina imposed was the right call. The problem is not the lengthy sentence; it’s the way she positioned herself throughout the sentencing proceedings.
Throughout the proceedings, which were televised, Aquilina essentially transformed herself into a champion for a movement. It is understandable to feel empathy for previously voiceless victims, especially ones whose testimony took such bravery. But there are crucial distinctions between judge and advocate, and she traversed those lines repeatedly.
She talked to victims as though she were their confidante, telling one, “The monster who took advantage of you is going to wither, much like the scene in The Wizard of Oz where the water gets poured on the witch and the witch withers away.”
She passionately thanked victims and called them “superheroes.” As a result, she has been profiled around the country — including in a New York Times piece titled, “Victims in Larry Nassar Abuse Case Find a Fierce Advocate: The Judge.”
I may be especially attuned to such line blurring. But it is simply unfitting for a judge to broadcast such personal contempt for a defendant in her court, no matter how awful his deeds.
By aligning herself so closely with the victims and so clearly rooting against Nassar, Aquilina also reinforced the dangerous idea that judges can and should be in sync with public sentiment.
In some ways, this is an easy case for such an alignment, given the horror of Nassar’s acts. But easy cases get us in trouble; they lead us down a slippery slope. What happens the next time, when the evidence is less clear? What happens when there is doubt as to guilt but a judge allows empathy for victims to drive decisions?
In our criminal justice system, victims don’t decide their perpetrators’ sentences, because victims (understandably) cannot be objective. Relatedly, the public shouldn’t get to decide which cases sufficiently offend us to warrant a judge abandoning impartiality.
Judges wear plain, unadorned robes. They don’t wear college insignia, sports emblems, or any other markers of allegiance. That’s by design, as judges represent absolute neutrality. We must hold judges to that standard in every case, not just some. That’s the only way we can ensure our system is fair.
That’s not for Larry Nassar’s benefit. It’s to protect everyone else.
Nassar’s victims deserve an advocate. But that advocate shouldn’t be a judge. Right or not right? The Judge said exactly what we’re all thinking, but I’m not so sure she didn’t cross a line.