Judicial excess in Nassar case
The crimes committed by Larry Nassar are the despicable and depraved acts of a vile sexual predator. The loathing of Nassar and a belief that even the sentence of up to 175 years in prison that he received this week isn’t enough are entirely appropriate responses to the heinous violation of hundreds of girls that he engaged in over many years as the physician for the US gymnastics team. But none of that, say several legal voices, justifies the judge in the case turning herself into a media spectacle, a fierce advocate for victims, ally of the prosecution, and tribune for the thirst for vengeance that a horrific case like this naturally generates.
By the close of Wednesday’s sentencing of Nassar, even the most poignant victim impact statements given over the course of several days in a Michigan courtroom had been eclipsed by the jarring words offered by Judge Rosemarie Aquilina. In handing down the sentence, she told Nassar with evident pleasure, “I just signed your death warrant.”
“She presided over an important sexual abuse case involving well-known and eloquent victims at a time when the nation is just starting to come to grips with the extent of our society’s sexual victimization of women and girls,” writes Andrew Cohen in The New Republic. But he says Aquilina completed abdicated her responsibilities as a judge and the constitutional protection that “guarantees that even the most heinous defendants among us are entitled to a fair trial before an impartial judge.”
Rachel Marshall, a public defender in Oakland, California, says much the same thing in a piece for Vox. “Our nation’s constitutional principles remain deliberately very distinct from biblical notions of ‘an eye for an eye,’ but her statement had a clear Old Testament flavor,” she says of the judge’s remarks. “Throughout the proceedings, which were televised, Aquilina essentially transformed herself into a champion for a movement. It is understandable to feel empathy for previously voiceless victims, especially ones whose testimony took such bravery. But there are crucial distinctions between judge and advocate, and she traversed those lines repeatedly.”
In her sentencing remarks, Aquilina said: “Our Constitution does not allow for cruel and unusual punishment. If it did, I have to say, I might allow what he did to all of these beautiful souls—these young women in their childhood—I would allow someone or many people to do to him what he did to others.”
Words like that, which may be entirely understandable sentiments if offered by victims, should be seen as chiling when they come from a judge, says Cohen.
“It is possible to see Nassar as a despicable man who did despicable things, a man who deserves the sentence he has received, and see his judge as someone who abdicated her responsibility to him,” he writes. “These are not inconsistent beliefs. My point is that no defendant in America, no matter his crime, deserves to have his sentencing judge encourage or suggest that he ought to be killed or raped in prison. Such vitriol turns the proceeding from the reasoned expression of community values as expressed in law to little more than a lynch mob.”
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