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She's the judge these Larry Nassar victims needed

As a teenager, Amanda Cormier loved music. She would sing in musicals and choirs and be endlessly creative as she wro...

Posted: Jan 18, 2018 5:23 PM
Updated: Jan 18, 2018 5:23 PM

As a teenager, Amanda Cormier loved music. She would sing in musicals and choirs and be endlessly creative as she wrote songs on the guitar, she said.

But after Larry Nassar sexually abused her when she was 15, she lost her passion for music. She struggled to open up emotionally and couldn't perform in front of people, she told a court on Tuesday. She hasn't written a song since she was 18, she said.

Circuit Court Judge Rosemarie Aquilina listened to her and then offered some advice to Cormier -- and to Cormier's unborn baby.

"It seems to me, after this, you can finish writing. You found your voice," Aquilina said. "It's a strong, effective, brave voice, and you have a child coming. Maybe what you need to do is start and finish a lullaby."

That personalized, intimate response to Cormier was representative of Judge Aquilina's unique approach in these court hearings as part of Nassar's sentencing.

As victim after victim has shared horrific tales of assault and abuse, Aquilina has acted as both judge and therapist, offering empathy, comfort and advice to each individual.

"I wish my robe came with a magic wand so I can wave it over you and heal you," Judge Aquilina said to one victim. "But that's fairy tales."

Aquilina has effectively transformed the hearing into a sort of judicial therapy session. The approach is striking and uncommon, legal experts said, particularly for victim impact statements, which are designed to give victims their day in court.

"It's not really an opportunity for a judge to give a comforting statement, psychiatric counsel, (or) trauma advice," Stacy Schneider, a criminal defense attorney and legal commentator told CNN. "That wasn't the purpose of it."

"To get so intimate with the victims in a case, coming from the bench, is a very unusual thing," she added.

Nassar, once a renowned doctor for USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University, has pleaded guilty to seven counts of criminal sexual assault in Ingham County in Michigan. As part of his plea deal, he admitted to using his position as a trusted medical professional in order to assault and molest young girls.

Prosecutors said they expect about 101 victims to speak against Nassar, and the proceedings are expected to last through the week.

He has also pleaded guilty to three counts in Eaton County in Michigan, and he has already been sentenced to 60 years in prison on federal child pornography charges. It seems certain that Nassar, 54, will spend the rest of his life in prison.

'He will wither away'

Many victims have said they suffer from anxiety, self-doubt or depression because of Nassar's abuse. In response, Aquilina has affirmed their self-worth and repeatedly focused the blame on Nassar, often using powerful, disparaging language.

"The monster who took advantage of you is going to wither, much like the scene in the 'Wizard of Oz' where the water gets poured on the witch and the witch withers away," Aquilina told one victim on Tuesday.

"That's what's going to happen to him, because as you get stronger, as you overcome -- because you will -- he gets weaker and he will wither away. Prison is no place for a human being to live."

Aquilina's comments have sometimes bordered on vindictive. At the very end of Tuesday's hearing, the judge imagined aloud what she'd like to do to Nassar if not for the 8th amendment to the US Constitution.

"Our Constitution does not allow for cruel and unusual punishment," she said. "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."

Comments like these from a presiding judge are unusual, said Stu Slotnick, a defense attorney and former prosecutor.

"It's somewhat unusual for the judge to say something like that because it makes it seem personal. But the one thing you have to remember is this is the most heinous of heinous crimes."

In general, judges thank or comfort victims when they speak but withhold their opinion until the end. At that point, the judge will offer their overall thoughts on the defendant and victims and deliver a sentence, Slotnick said.

"What (Nassar) did was so reprehensible and so disgusting that everyone shares the judge's sentiment," he added.

"However, it's unusual that prior to actually rendering a sentencing, the judge is actually expressing her opinion."

But judges showing empathy for victims is "totally appropriate," according to Jennifer Long, the chief executive officer at Aequitas, an organization that offers resources to prosecutors in cases of sexual and domestic violence.

"I don't think that's any way in contradiction to the rules of the judge. It demonstrates that the judge is understanding of the victim's suffering," she said.

"(It) makes a huge difference to victims to think about individually getting up and making a statement."

The comments could, however, open Aquilina up to legal challenges. Schneider said Nassar's defense attorney could seize on them if Nassar chooses to appeal his coming sentence.

"If it was a lower sentence and the judge made those types of comments about my client, I would definitely use those sentiments in an appeal to show the judge had a preexisting bias against the defendant," she said.

Judge, author and radio host

Aquilina was elected to the 30th Circuit Court in November of 2008, and her most notable case was when she ruled that Detroit's bankruptcy filing was unconstitutional in 2013.

Before that, she served as a district court judge, according to her online biography. She also was the first female JAG Officer in the Michigan Army National Guard when she enlisted. In addition, she is an adjunct professor at Michigan State University College of Law and at Thomas M. Cooley Law School.

She previously hosted a syndicated radio talk show called "Ask the Family Lawyer," according to her online biography. And in December, Aquilina released her novel "Triple Cross Killer," which follows a team of detectives who try to track down a daunting killer, according to the book description.

Perhaps it's that interest in writing that led her to push Amanda Cormier to restart her musical career and begin work on a lullaby.

"I look forward to hearing the end of your song. Get writing," Aquilina said on Tuesday. "I think it would be good therapy for you and your child and the rest of us to hear you sing and to know strongly in that voice that you are a tower of strength, and all survivors can be."

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