Kyle Stephens, the first victim to testify against former USA gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar, had once considered the man a friend. Larry was close with her parents, she told the court during Nassar’s sentencing hearing, and the two families had often spent time together on weekends. When Stephens was six years old, Nassar exposed himself to her in a dark boiler room. The abuse escalated over time. Stephens told her parents; they didn’t believe her. Nassar feigned forgiveness, inviting her to babysit his own children. She paid for her own counseling with money she made taking care of her abuser’s kids.
Stephens’s experience is indicative of the rippling damage done by sexual assault. The crimes that Nassar was charged with regarding her molestation do not exhaust the harm he did to her. And during his sentencing, Judge Rosemarie Aquilina sought to highlight that fact.
“I’ve just signed your death warrant,” Aquilina told Nassar at his sentencing, referring to the fact that, since he has already been sentenced to 60 years in prison for possession of child pornography, the 40- to 175-year sentence that Aquilina handed down will guarantee he dies behind bars. Aquilina also read only selections of Nassar’s letter to the court, in which he claimed the same victims who had spent days testifying against him were “the same ones that praised [him] and came back over and over,” and that “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.”
Aquilina treated that last act of cruelty with appropriate dismissiveness, forcing Nassar to reiterate that he had, in fact, pleaded guilty — that he is guilty, as much as he seemed indignant to hear it said. She went on: “Our Constitution does not allow for cruel and unusual punishment. If it did . . . I would allow some or many people to do to him what he did to others.”
But Aquilina’s role is limited by the Constitution, as she acknowledged, and Nassar’s punishment is well inside the boundaries of the law. Nonetheless, Aquilina’s bluntness drew criticism: Some were bothered by Aquilina’s obvious partiality to the victims; others viewed her conduct as indicative of vengeful “judicial grandstanding.” Some felt Aquilina was acting less as an objective arbiter of the law and more as an advocate.
Aquilina’s remarks were imperfect. One of the great frustrations of life is that people who are trying to do the right thing often go about it in the wrong way, and I agree that Aquilina was wrong to imply anyone ought to be sexually abused as a form of punishment, even if she only deployed hyperbole for emphasis.
That remark aside though, Aquilina’s explicit position on the extraordinary moral impact of Nassar’s crimes was a kind of advocacy — for justice itself. One notable feature of the #MeToo movement is how little legal intervention there has been: Bill Cosby, despite standing accused of drugging and raping several women, has avoided jail time. Police are apparently considering filing charges against Harvey Weinstein for his alleged severe sexual misconduct, but there has been no indictment as yet. Prosecutors are notoriously skittish about pursuing sexual assault cases, knowing that juries are often skeptical of victims. Aquilina’s outspoken approach to Nassar’s sentencing is a signal from the bench that these crimes are serious and more abundant than many of us perhaps thought, and that they deserve the sustained attention of the courts and the public.
But perhaps most importantly, Aquilina communicated that the justice of the courts is not a complete one. It is a necessary justice — those who break just laws ought to face consequences — but sexual crimes far exceed in damage what the law is able to aright with restitution or retribution.
Stephens will never get back what Nassar took away from her. Years after she tried and failed to convince her parents that their close friend had molested her, she tried one more time. This time her father believed her. In 2016, he took his own life. “Had he not had to bear the shame and self-loathing that stemmed from his defense of Larry Nassar, I believe he would have had a fighting chance for life,” Stephens told the court. Nassar won’t be punished for that, or any number of his other violations — the sort not encoded into law, the interpersonal damage wrought by cruelty and malice and disregard — in this life. It is good and right that Judge Aquilina expressed the court’s view that its justice is of a limited kind, if only to set Nassar’s victims free to move on to the next stage of finding peace.
At the end of Dante’s journey through the underworld, his guide and teacher Virgil bids him farewell, being unable to accompany Dante into paradise. “Expect no more word or sign from me,” he says, “your will, upright and sound, is now released.” Aquilina, herself party to a tour through hell and, likewise, mostly up to the task of shedding moral clarity on the ordeal, sent Nassar’s victims out into the world with a valediction much the same: “Leave your pain here,” she said, “and go out and do your magnificent things.”