Aquilina finding new purpose after Nassar scandal

Posted at 9:46 PM, May 29, 2019
and last updated 2019-05-29 22:41:01-04

LANSING, Mich. — Judge Rosemarie Aquilina grabbed the world’s attention during sentencing for former sports doctor Larry Nassar in Ingham County in January 2018.

During that seven-day sentencing, she allowed more than 150 women and girls to confront their abuser.

More than a year later, she sat down with FOX 17 to share her thoughts on the importance of that week in her courtroom and her newly-ignited passion to advocate for sexual abuse victims.

Aquilina is known for many things: she earned the nickname “barricuda” during her time in the military for her no-nonsense and tough, but fair approach. But she’s also a mother, a writer, a painter and a member of the community.

More than 200 sister survivors confronted Nassar over a nine-day period in two different counties, but Aquilina led most of them.

Looking back, she said she wouldn’t have handled the case any differently because it’s how she handles all her cases.

“I would have listened all year if it took, seven months. I listened for seven days,” she said.

The judge calls her courtroom a place of healing, where victims can be reborn by facing the ones who hurt them. That was especially important for this group of women.

“They were very small, then they got larger as they spoke to him and I could feel them shedding their pain,” Aquilina said. “Each one of those girls was a new baby that I was handed. It was a gift I will never have again, and they empowered me to go onto the next girl and refresh me every single time.”

During sentencing in Ingham County, Nassar said he couldn’t handle the victim impact statements and wrote a letter asking to be excused, parts of which were read aloud in court.

“If you look at the letter in its whole entirety, he claims to be a good doctor, he still believes it was treatment and the blame, he shuffles off to the girls,” Aquilina said.

She added Nassar said the process was too hard for him and asked her to stop the victim impact statements.

“However hard it is, it doesn’t matter. It pales in comparison to the hundreds or thousands of hours of pleasure he had at the victims’ expense,” Aquilina said.

Statements went on as planned and Nassar was sentenced to 40-175 years in prison.

“He’s not worthy of being rehabilitated, I think we saw that over those seven days, he showed that,” Aquilina said of the sentence.

In the days that followed sentencing, some said Aquilina crossed the line between impartial judge and emotional advocate. She disputes that accusation.

“The demeanor, the rehabilitation, the deterrence factor, all of those things, the victims, have to be taken into consideration, and that’s what I did. His demeanor throughout that trial was horrible,” she said. “He wanted to gain control, wasn’t listening, at times, I thought was laughing, wasn’t interested at all in listening to the harm he had done.”

Aquilina thinks we are likely to see cases of this scope again.

She said, “they are surfacing almost daily. We’re reading in the media, boys who are coming out, girls who are coming out, church stories, there’s all sorts of stories coming out.”

These days, it’s business as usual in Aquilina’s courtroom, but her downtime is a different story.

She’s featured in HBO’s new documentary “At the Heart of Gold: The USA Gymnastics Scandal” and attended the Tribeca Film Festival premiere, with dozens of sister-survivors by her side.

Glamour Magazine named her ‘Woman of the Year’ in 2018, catching the eye and support of celebrities, including Natalie Portman, who wore a shirt with Aquilina’s name on it on Saturday Night Live.

She said, “I was shocked. Sunday morning, my phone was ringing off the hook. It was texting and beeping and ringing and all sorts of things and I thought, ‘My gosh, what has happened?’”

While the attention was all very unexpected, Aquilina hopes people are paying attention and taking notice for the right reasons.

She said, “I’m using vacation time to go across the country and do events, talk to people, get things moving, talk about what happened in my courtroom to other judges.”

She hopes by doing that, we can start to have more open and candid conversations about sexual abuse.

“Now is the time to change the culture of silence. Get education, background checks, training by those persons best to train. We need to change the culture from doctors, to sports, to schools, churches, and now is the time,” Aquilina said. “This has really catapulted change around the world."

For those who say the problem is too big or think they don’t have a role to play, Aquilina says to think again.

#MeToo is not a woman’s problem, not a girl’s problem, it’s a human problem. Men and women need to partner together, to solve the problem,” she said.

Nassar has filed appeals in both Ingham and Eaton counties seeking new sentences and even filed a motion to have Aquilina disqualified from the Ingham County case.

That motion was denied.

Nassar is currently serving what in all likelihood is a life sentence in a Florida penitentiary.