It's hard for a non-Trump news story to break through these days — even harder if the story centers on a sport, gymnastics, that most Americans pay attention to for a single week, every four years.
But Rosemarie Aquilina, the state judge in Michigan who presided over the sentencing of former Team USA doctor Larry Nassar, ensured that the case received maximum exposure. She did so by making time for more than 150 women and girls to deliver victim impact statements, setting the stage for powerful moments that played over and over on cable news.
Nassar, who pleaded guilty to 10 counts of sexual assault, complained last week that the multiday hearing had become a “media circus.”
“I didn't orchestrate this,” Aquilina replied, without a trace of sympathy. “You did.”
On Wednesday, with television networks carrying the proceeding live, Aquilina sentenced Nassar to 40 to 175 years in prison — on top of the 60-year sentence he received at a child-pornography trial.
“I just signed your death warrant,” Aquilina said.
At the end of the session, she turned over her courtroom to Nassar's victims, inviting them to hold an impromptu news conference so their voices could be heard again. Throughout the case, Aquilina seemed determined to facilitate opportunities for the women and girls abused by Nassar to tell their stories.
Aquilina's handling of the case made her something of a star. The New York Times profiled her on its front page Wednesday.
“Belying the stone-faced image of dispassionate jurists, Judge Aquilina has emerged as an unusually fierce victims' advocate in a sentencing hearing that has drawn national attention for the scope of Dr. Nassar's abuse and for the role that institutions like USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University played in employing him for decades,” the Times article read.
Glamour magazine published a list of Aquilina's 10 best lines from the sentencing hearing. The Guardian's fashion column opined that “from a fashion perspective, Judge Aquilina is a delight: her eyebrows perfectly arched, her lips painted magenta, which matches the magenta streak in her ebony hair. This she piles on top of her head in a fabulous pompadour.”
Aquilina tried to make clear Wednesday that she wants the spotlight to shine on Nassar's victims, not on her. Her direct address to reporters is worth reading, in full:
Let me just say to the media, again, I'm just doing my job. I know you all want to talk to me. My secretary has informed me that I have a growing stack of requests from print media, from television, from magazines — from around the world, literally. This story is not about me. It never was about me. I hope I've opened some doors but, you see, I'm a little stupid because I thought everybody did what I did, and if they didn't, maybe they ought to.
But I do this and have been doing it. And if you don't believe me, the keeper of my words is right by my side. And lawyers who are hearing this are shaking their heads, saying, “Yup, I've waited too long, as she lets everybody talk.” Sometimes people get upset. I don't care. I get paid the same. So I ask for the media who want to talk with me, I'm not going to be making any statements. I know that my office — and I may have even, I don't know; it's been a long couple of weeks — conveyed that after this is over. . . .
It's just not my story. After the appellate period runs, with victims by my side to tell their stories, I might answer some more questions than what I've said on the record. I don't know what more I could possibly say. But I'm not going to talk with any media person until after the appeal period, and even then, if you talk to me about this case, I will have a survivor by my side because it is their story.
So I wanted everybody to hear that from me. I respect all of the media outlets. You have done just a fabulous job here. There hasn't been any coalition more upset by this, and I do believe in the First Amendment, so I thank you all for being here because it's an important story for the survivors.
As to today, I know there are a lot of survivors, family members, husbands, friends — a lot of people in the courtroom. You have voices. I'm going to leave the courtroom. Defendant will leave the courtroom. The attorneys may stay. The victims, family members, survivors, you may stay in the courtroom and talk with media. You can have your own press conference right here. Spur of the moment sometimes works out the best, doesn't it?