The final sentencing hearing began Wednesday for disgraced former sports doctor Larry Nassar, who will again be confronted by scores of victims as he faces another prison sentence for molesting gymnasts at an elite Michigan club run by an Olympic coach.
Judge Janice Cunningham has set aside several days for roughly 60 people who want to confront Nassar or have their statement read in court. The hearing could unfold much the same as a hearing last week in another county where a different judge allowed more than 150 women and girls to confront Nassar in court about his abuse.
That hearing ended with Nassar getting sentenced to 40 to 175 years in prison, with the judge describing it as Nassar’s “death warrant.”
The practice of allowing accusers to speak even if they are not tied directly to a case has raised questions about fairness. But attorneys say the victim statements probably pose little risk on appeal, especially since Nassar pleaded guilty, agreed to allow the statements and is expected to get another long prison sentence as part of his deal with prosecutors.
“If you get what you bargained for, then you really can’t argue that you were prejudiced in any way,” said Margaret Raben, former leader of a Michigan association of criminal defense attorneys.
It’s not uncommon for prosecutors to introduce “aggravating” evidence at sentencing to support their request for a severe punishment. But the parade of victims offering emotional accounts of their abuse to the face of an abuser went well beyond the typical hearing.
Raben said there was a “horrible dynamic” last week in Judge Rosemarie Aquilina’s courtroom, even if the judge had the option to allow so many people to speak in a case that involved just seven victims.
“Her obvious delight was just off the wall,” Raben said, referring to Aquilina’s “death warrant” remark and others. “I am not defending Larry Nassar at all, but what I saw with her was a real abandonment of judicial demeanor. … The process doesn’t change because everybody hates the defendant. That is the absolute glory, or should be, of the American justice system.”
A fellow Ingham County judge, William Collette, said Aquilina’s handling of the hearing was “outrageous.” Others, however, have praised her treatment of victims and their parents.
The case on Cunningham’s docket Wednesday in Eaton County centers on Nassar’s assaults at Twistars, a Lansing-area gymnastics club that was run by 2012 Olympic coach John Geddert. Nassar admits penetrating three girls with his hands when he was supposed to be treating them for injuries.
So far, 57 victims want to speak in court or submit statements. Attorney Mick Grewal said 11 of his clients have signed up, including some who were inspired by the 150-plus young women and girls who appeared in Aquilina’s court. He called it a “cathartic experience.”
“Now they’re at a point in their healing process where they want to confront Larry, and they want to show the world that they are survivors and they are strong and they are part of this movement,” Grewal said. “It helps them through the healing process.”
He said the Nassar cases are extraordinary in the number of victims who have come forward.
“The only case that’s out there that’s even similar in stature is Penn State, and this is now six times as big as Penn State, maybe seven times,” Grewal said, referring to boys who said they were sexually abused by assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky.
Meanwhile, the Nassar scandal continued to trigger other developments around the country, from Texas to the nation’s capital.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott ordered a criminal investigation after victims said they were assaulted by Nassar at the Karolyi Ranch, a famous Texas facility that was the training ground for U.S. women’s gymnastics. The ranch is owned by former national team coordinators Bela and Martha Karolyi.
USA Gymnastics cut ties with the ranch earlier this month, a few days after Olympic champion Simone Biles and said she dreaded the thought of having to return there to train.
In Michigan, former Gov. John Engler was named interim president at Michigan State University on Wednesday following Lou Anna Simon’s resignation last week of from the school’s top post. Engler will head the school as it confronts lawsuits filed by more than 100 women and girls, and investigations by the state attorney general, the NCAA and Congress.
One of Michigan State’s corporate sponsors chose not to have its logo behind basketball coach Tom Izzo and football coach Mark Dantonio during recent news conferences. Auto-Owners Insurance spokesman Trevor Mahoney told the AP on Tuesday the company did not think it was appropriate.
Also Tuesday, former basketball player Travis Walton defended himself days after ESPN reported he was named in a sexual assault report and had assault and battery charges dismissed in 2010. At the time, Walton’s four-year career as a guard with the Spartans was over and he was assisting Izzo while taking classes to graduate.
Walton said in a statement that he had multiple consensual encounters with a woman, who accused him of rape. Walton said he never hit a woman as alleged in a bar, where he said she threw a drink at him.
And in Washington, the Senate approved a bill that would require governing bodies for amateur athletics to quickly report claims of abuse to law enforcement.