Judge Rosemarie Aquilina ― who made her name advocating for sexual assault survivors during predator Larry Nassar’s sentencing ― is now threatening the very justice she helped get for dozens of victims, several sources and a legal expert tell HuffPost.
Aquilina, a Michigan Circuit Court Judge, rose to national prominence in early 2018, when she sentenced Nassar, a former USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University team doctor, to 40-175 years in prison for sexually abusing young women. More than 160 survivors and family members read impact statements during a remarkable seven-day sentence hearing in Aquilina’s court.
But attorneys for Nassar filed an appeal in April, arguing that Aquilina has shown ongoing bias — and that Nassar’s sentence should be thrown out. And now, nearly two years after the famous hearing, some survivors of Nassar’s abuse are worried that Aquilina’s ongoing media appearances and speaking engagements could strengthen Nassar’s chances of winning that appeal.
Madeleine Jones, one of the seven victims whom Nassar admitted, in his plea deal, to abusing, found Aquilina’s behavior during and after sentencing to be inappropriate, she told HuffPost.
“I’ve never really seen a case where the judge gets appearances and interviews for doing their job. It’s very unprecedented and it seems very unnecessary,” Jones, 20, said. “It really does open the door to give slight credibility to Nassar’s appeal.”
Another Nassar survivor, who wished to remain anonymous, agreed with Jones, telling HuffPost that Aquilina’s actions are affecting her ability to put this case behind her.
“Judge Aquilina’s public persona doesn’t just jeopardize our case, it also jeopardizes our healing,” she said. “We all feel like we owe her so much ― and we do ― but at the same she’s also the person who’s prolonging our pain.”
Judge Aquilina’s public persona doesn’t just jeopardize our case, it also jeopardizes our healing. -Nassar survivor
Aquilina did not immediately respond to HuffPost’s request for comment. Nassar’s lawyers have pointed to Aquilina’s strong language during sentencing, ongoing public appearances and barefaced advocacy on social media and in the press as evidence of bias.
“It is impossible for a judge who has become so enmeshed in the public adoration and celebrity resulting from the severity of her treatment of Dr. Nassar to be seen as neutral and unbiased,” attorneys Malaika Ramsey-Heath and Jacqueline McCann wrote in Nassar’s appeal.
The judge’s behavior does indicate some appearance of impropriety, Charles Wolfram, a professor at Cornell Law School and an expert in legal ethics, said.
“Her post-litigation conduct, to me at least, indicates a strong probability that her mind was likely made up about several facts that would otherwise have been relevant to a sentencing judge,” he said. “Given the close connection in time between sentencing and the onset of her repeated conduct, its occurrence post-sentencing should be given just as much weight as if it had occurred before sentencing.”
There are several possible outcomes from the pending appeal. The Michigan Court of Appeals could simply penalize Aquilina for her behavior but keep her original sentencing in place. The court could also order a completely new sentencing with a new judge where survivors could choose to re-read their gut-wrenching impact statements.
“Knowingly risking to have him re-sentenced, to me, is the greatest insult to these women,” a source close to the case told HuffPost under the condition of anonymity out of fear of retribution. “Very few of us can really understand what it’s going to be like for them to have to go through that again, and how much pain that’s going to drudge up.”
It is extremely unlikely that Nassar’s sentence of life in prison would change. Oral arguments for the appeal are set to be held before the end of the year.
During Nassar’s sentencing, Aquilina took a unique and at times controversial approach. The judge continually told survivors to leave their trauma with her in the courtroom, repeating phrases such as: “This was done to you. It was not done by you,” and, “He’s going to break while you’re healing, and I believe that he will remain broken.”
At one point, she even suggested that what Nassar did to these women should be done to him in prison. In one of her most infamous statements, Aquilina told Nassar she signed his “death warrant” after handing down his sentence.
Over the last year, Aquilina has built a long resume of press appearances. The judge first appeared at the ESPYs last summer, and she went on to attend several red carpet events and award dinners. She has continued to speak to press, including NBC Nightly News and Glamour, and was even photographed by Annie Leibovitz for Vanity Fair magazine. She told ESPN in August that she could be the next Judge Judy, but “in a classier way.”
Aquilina takes two to three speaking engagements a month, some paid, and has hired an agent, she told the Lansing State Journal in June. The judge is also listed as a board director for The Army of Survivors, an organization created by Nassar survivors to support other victims of sexual assault.
Multiple sources told HuffPost that Aquilina has had direct contact with victims ― behavior that judges are supposed to avoid while cases are still under appeal. The anonymous survivor who spoke to HuffPost said that Aquilina used to routinely send her memes depicting the judge and articles about the judge.
Aquilina is often credited with “allowing” survivors to speak at Nassar’s sentencing. But the extensive victim impact statements were actually part of Nassar’s plea deal, which was crafted by prosecutor Angela Povilaitis, not the judge.
“Judge Aquilina always says, ‘I let every victim speak.’ Which, yes, she let them speak but that wasn’t her idea. At all,” Jones said. “It was Angie’s idea.”
Jones added that she felt Aquilina’s remarks during sentencing were disingenuous. “Her comments were very supportive, they were very kind ― but I remember thinking at the time: ‘This isn’t necessary,’” she said. “It felt like she was trying to get the last word in on my statement.”
Aquilina’s newfound celebrity calls into question the intent behind her self-described advocacy for “sister survivors.” The survivor who wished to remain anonymous said that she, along with other victims, believe Aquilina’s advocacy has become self-serving and even manipulative.
“It’s scary to think that we’ve been here before: where the person that is helping us is also the person that’s hurting us,” she said. “It’s a really scary cycle to break, but we have to.”
She said many victims feel similar to her but are nervous to come forward. For all of Aquilina’s shortcomings, the survivor explained, the judge has still helped a lot of young victims heal. Gratitude for that has forced many Nassar survivors to stay quiet even as Aquilina’s ongoing advocacy threatens to dismantle their case.
“People don’t want to admit that their hero could also be hurting them,” the survivor said.
Need help? Visit RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Online Hotline or the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s website.