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Judge Rosemarie Aquilina pulled no punches as she sentenced ex-USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University doctor Larry Nassar to 40 to 175 years in prison Wednesday: "I just signed your death warrant."
Nassar was accused of sexually assaulting more than 140 girls and young women in his care. Many of Nassar's victims were gymnasts, and some were as young as 6 years old. Nassar admitted to sexually assaulting seven people.
Among the women who have come forward about sexual assault by Nassar are Olympic gymnasts Simone Biles, Gabby Douglas, Aly Raisman and Mckayla Maroney. After it became public that much of the abuse took place at the famed Karolyi Ranch, USA Gymnastics announced it was severing ties with the ranch last week.
But with abuse that began in the 1990s and continued through 2016, it's clear that USA Gymnastics has only begun to address the decades of abuse that flourished in its programs.
Judge Aquilina can't change that: It's up to USA Gymnastics to do that. But her verdict today, issued strongly and from a place of female empowerment, tackled another flawed system: the judiciary. When other sexual perpetrators are best remembered for their light sentences or victim-blaming — such as ex-Stanford student Brock Turner who was sentenced to only six months for sexual assault last year — Judge Aquilina's strong verdict is a beacon of hope for young women who are grappling with their own sexual assaults.
During the sentencing, Judge Aquilina read aloud from a letter submitted by Nassar on his behalf.
“‘I was a good doctor,’” Nassar wrote. “‘Those patients that are now speaking out, are the same ones that praised [me] and came back over and over. . . The media convinced them everything was wrong. They feel I broke their trust. Hell hath no fury like a woman’s scorn.’”
There was an audible gasp in the court room as Judge Aquilina finished reading the passage, and GIFs of her subsequent tossing aside of his letter were making the rounds on Twitter in minutes.
This GIF of Judge Aquilina throwing away the letter Larry Nassar wrote the court about how hard it is for him to listen to victim testimonies PRETTY MUCH SAYS IT ALL. pic.twitter.com/5HB9WMaPqU— Ellie Hall (@ellievhall) January 24, 2018
As important as the sentence itself is to survivors, Judge Aquilina's gentleness and personal responses to each of the victims as they read aloud statements about their abuse is a model for what the judiciary can be. All too often, we are cautioned about the importance of due process for abusers while the rights of victims to due process are ignored. Judge Aquilina paved the way for fair, objective sentencing that treats victims with the respect they deserve.
Likewise, when victims see other victims treated with dignity and respect in a court room, they know they can be treated that way too. If we expect survivors to report their abuse, we need to build a judiciary that is worthy of their courage. Today, Judge Aquilina did exactly that.
But even more importantly, Judge Aquilina is a model for all of us. When we believe survivors and hear their stories, justice can be served. And when women are represented in the court room, our chances at justice are even better.