Judge Rosemary Aquilina sentenced Dr. Larry Nassar to a minimum of 40 years and a maximum of 175 years in state prison for multiple cases of sexual abuses of children entrusted to his care.
In so doing, she made an extensive sentencing statement, which has been both praised and criticized. Here is the full text of the statement.
I’ve read one lawyerly analysis arguing her statements were somehow improper, and I totally disagree with the conclusion. At one point the author says,
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?
What the author misses here is that the evidence at a sentencing based on a plea is always clear: the defendant admitted what he is charged with. Here is a different view, as reported by the New York Times:
Stephen Gillers, a professor of law at New York University, said that although judges are often thought of as unbiased and impartial, it is important to remember that this is a sentencing hearing, not a trial. Dr. Nassar, who has already received a 60-year federal sentence for a child pornography conviction, pleaded guilty to several state sexual assault charges and will be sentenced after the “victim impact statements” are finished.
“At a sentencing, a judge can say and is encouraged to say just what she thinks,” Mr. Gillers said in a telephone interview. “What’s unusual here is that the number of victims who are willing to speak has given the judge more than 100 opportunities to do that.”
To me, a judge shows bias in sentencing if she imposes a sentence on the basis of a suspect category, most commonly, race. This is not as rare as it should be, extremely difficult to prove, and a subject for another time.
Other than that, a judge is free to sentence within statutory guidelines, which are sometimes fairly circumscribed and other times, discretionary in the extreme. In California, for example, a judge must impose a term from a triad of choices, and in the case of multiple offenses, decide whether to impose concurrent or consecutive sentences. Even there, some statutes impose limits or mandates. She can usually decide to suspend the sentence and place the defendant on probation, though even that is sometimes dictated by statute.
Assuming a judge stays within the law, how harshly he or she punishes becomes pretty much a personal choice. I knew judges, variously known by sobriquets such as Maximum Mark, Harry the Hammer, and Iron Mike, who were notoriously hard sentencers. But they were also eminently fair. You went before them if your case had a fighting chance. Otherwise, you found judges who liked to move their calendars along and were quite willing to abide by whatever plea and/or sentence deals you and the prosecutor could strike. Of course, they were always free to reject a bargain as long as the defendant could withdraw his plea.
I saw nothing in the judge’s statement that evinced bias. Her sentence appears to be within the guidelines. Her harsh criticism of Dr. Nassar seems fully justified by his sickening inability to accept responsibility.
In part, she was reacting to Nassar’s letter:
I was a good doctor, because my treatments worked,” she read from Nassar’s letter. “And those patients that are now speaking out were the same ones who praised and came back over and over and referred family and friends to see me. The media convinced them that everything I did was wrong and bad. They feel I broke their trust. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. It is just a complete nightmare. Stories are being fabricated to sensationalize this…I was so manipulated by the attorney general and now by Judge Aquilina. And all I wanted was to minimize stress to everyone.”
In my experience, nothing angers a judge more than a defendant who has admitted guilt yet refuses to accept responsibility and insists on blaming the victim. That brings judges off the bench snarling like nothing else.
As far as I can tell, her statements gave the beleaguered victims their first real taste of justice. “You are the bravest person I have ever had in my courtroom,” she said.
I see nothing to criticize.