“Mattel ought to make toys so that little girls can look at you and say, ‘I want to be her,’” Judge Rosemarie Aquilina said from behind her bench at Larry Nassar’s sentencing last week. She continued, “Thank you so much for being here and for your strength.”
Her words followed the victim-impact statement of Bailey Lorencen, a former gymnast who was sexually abused by Nassar under the guise of medical treatment. It was the fifth day, of seven total, that Aquilina heard 156 statements like Lorencen’s from 156 victims who had previously been doubted, discredited and silenced.
Throughout the week, Aquilina responded to each victim’s statement, verbalizing what the country was feeling as it watched the hearing.
"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 told one woman who spoke about the abuse she endured. To another former gymnast and survivor, she said, “Your dreams are still out there; his are squashed.” In her final statement, she told the court why she gave every victim, coach and family member the chance to speak: “I try to treat everybody like family because that’s the justice system that I was raised to believe in.”
In the story of Nassar’s sentencing — 40 to 175 years in prison — the victims are the heroes. They came to Michigan, looked their abuser in the eye, told their stories and fought to reclaim the power that had been stripped from them. And where these women were the heroes, Aquilina was the faithful sidekick, helping to amplify their voices while staying out of the way. She cleared her docket for a week to give every victim the chance to speak, and she held nothing back when showing her support for their bravery. She gave the victims the floor as Nassar watched from the witness stand. And, finally, she sentenced him to likely die behind bars.
The humanity she showed in her comments to victims is something we haven’t come to expect from people who work in the court system. It’s part of the reason she’s being criticized all over the internet and accused of “grandstanding” by the public. This backlash is disappointing, but in a society where victims of sexual abuse are systematically dissuaded from coming forward it’s also not surprising.
What Aquilina’s critics fail to understand is that the seven-day stretch in court was not a trial; it was a sentencing hearing. Nassar had already plead guilty to sexual assault charges, and it was Aquilina’s job to determine a prison term, rather than a guilty or innocent status. Allowing victims of his heinous crimes to shape that sentence wasn’t biased — it was just. There was no jury to sway, only stories to be told. Had Aquilina not opened the floor to those stories, the victims never would have had their chance to tell them to the public, to the courtroom and to the man who sexually abused them from ages as young as 6.
Providing this opportunity to all 156 victims to speak was extraordinary, if not unprecedented. But her emotionally charged comments after each of their statements were nothing new, Stephen Gillers, a law professor at New York University told the New York Times.
“At a sentencing a judge can say and is encouraged to say just what she thinks,” he said.
There are times when judicial distance is warranted, and emotions should be left out of the courtroom. This was not one of those times. If we want to encourage victims of sexual assault to come forward, we have to listen to them, voice our support for them and believe them. Despite her critics, Aquilina did her job with dignity, fairness and empathy. To balance the scales of justice we should all learn to do the same.
Carly Breit is a UF journalism senior. Her columns focus on feminism.