One judge's mission to make sure Larry Nassar hears from his victims

LANSING, Mich. — Chelsea Zerfas is just 16 years old. With her slight frame, simple maroon top and hair tucked behind her ear, she looked even younger.

Yet there she was, standing behind a podium last Friday in the middle of Courtroom 5 of the Ingham County Courthouse, standing in front of Larry Nassar, the man who abused her body and her trust starting when she was 12.

Her voice cracked. Tears ran down her cheeks.

She was terrified.

She was undeterred.

Old trauma fueled new heroics, but even so, even with outsized determination to speak out to the court, to Nassar, to, maybe most importantly, herself, Zerfas looked like she might collapse. Her mother stood just behind her, hand gently on her back, perhaps in case she did.

Equally supportive was who was in front of her – Ingham County Circuit Judge Rosemarie Aquilina, leaning intently forward, eyes locked in concentration, seemingly trying to help will courage into this child.

Chelsea Zerfas was not alone.

“You, Larry, asked for forgiveness,” Zerfas said. “This is all your fault. I will never forgive you for what you did to me. You are a coward.”

When Zerfas finally finished, after asking Aqilina to sentence him to the maximum 125 years, she exhaled, looked up and, like so many others, wasn’t sure what to do. The momentous, traumatic event of addressing the court, with its sleepless nights and rewritten drafts, was finally over.

Aquilina smiled an assurance at Zerfas.

Circuit Court Judge Rosemarie Aquilina addresses Larry Nassar, (R) a former team USA Gymnastics doctor, who pleaded guilty in November 2017 to sexual assault charges, during his sentencing hearing. (Reuters)
Circuit Court Judge Rosemarie Aquilina addresses Larry Nassar, (R) a former team USA Gymnastics doctor, who pleaded guilty in November 2017 to sexual assault charges, during his sentencing hearing. (Reuters)

“That,” Aquilina said, “was a very strong, brave voice. And I hope now that you’ve spoken publicly you will leave your pain here with him and you’ll live a long, healthy life. You are not alone anymore.”

Zerfas’ face began to relax. She smiled slightly. Her eyes lit up. If it’s possible to see a weight lifted off someone’s shoulders, this was it. She seemingly grew six inches in a moment.

“It is so important what you’ve done,” Aquilina continued. “I am so very proud of you. This doesn’t define you. This strengthens you. Congratulations, ma’am.”

This was a therapist in a black robe.

This is the best thing to come out of the worst thing, a week-plus sentencing hearing for a prolific pedophile turning into a group empowering session.

This, in a nondescript courtroom in a bland government building in a usually work-a-day circuit court with a docket full of DUIs and simple assaults, is the American judicial system at its finest, providing not merely justice for the victimized, but a measure of rehabilitation, too.

This Rosemarie Aquilina is one hell of a judge.

“You, are amazing,” Aquilina will say to a victim, trying to provide each one with a unique and personalized response at the conclusion of their testimony.

“You, are strong.”

“You, are being heard.”

Increasingly the victims are returning the compliments, thanking Aquilina for helping them, helping all of them by not just lifting them through the process, but also lifting them up.

“You are helping all of us to heal with your words,” victim Samantha Ursch said to Aquilina. “You are helping all of us, even the people not here to heal. I thank you for that.”

Nassar, 54, is already serving a 60-year sentence for a federal child pornography conviction. He’s been accused of molesting at least 140 girls, mostly through his work as a doctor for Michigan State and USA Gymnastics. In November 2017, he pleaded guilty to avoid an endless parade of trials. Victims were relieved, but Aquilina insisted that any and all survivors, their parents, their coaches or pretty much anyone else would be allowed to address Nassar and the court. She knew it would be important.

Initially 88 signed up. Aquilina cleared four full days last week for this extraordinary process. It’s proven so powerful and so successful, more women watching from afar have felt comfortable joining. Sometimes the youngest and most anonymous voices can motivate the most formidable and famous.

“I was scared and nervous,” said Olympic gold medalist Aly Raisman, who originally declined to speak only to travel to Lansing on Friday and powerfully call out Nassar, USA Gymnastics, Michigan State and the United States Olympic Committee. “It wasn’t until I started hearing and watching the impact statements from the other survivors that I knew I had to be here.”

At least 120 will now speak, and the number could grow. It may take until Tuesday or later to get through them all.

Aquilina doesn’t mind. There is no time limit for a statement. Some are off the top of their heads. Some are lengthy and beautifully prepared. Some feature profanity, anger and insults. Others come with Bible verses and forgiveness. Some are from teen girls. Some from middle-aged parents.

At the end, each is addressed by the judge, who speaks in a slow and purposeful manner, like she has nothing else to do, like they are the only two people in the room, the only two people in the world.

It is a performance perhaps only a mother of five, an Army National Guard veteran and a part-time law school professor could pull off – caring, tough, teaching.

“Judge Aquilina … I applaud you,” Doug Powell, whose daughter Kassie was a victim, said. “We applaud you. This room applauds you.”

Aquilina brushed aside the praise. Then she addressed Powell, a tough cop of 32 years, with the same deft and meaningful touch she did with Chelsea Zerfas.

“I know what you’ve gone through,” Aquilina said to Powell. ” … I’m hoping that today, coming here, will also help you heal. You are also a survivor. And your voice has also helped. I have heard you.

“No thanks needed with me,” Aquilina continued. “I know this seems unusual and it is unusual with so many victims. But I do this every day, with all victims. I’m not specially selecting this. I know you all are honoring me that way. And I am humbled. But it is not necessary. You did your job out on the streets, which is more than I have ever done.

“Thank you, sir. And thank you to your beautiful daughter.”

This is how each nerve-wracked, grief-stricken, rage-filled speaker is treated. This case inspires fury at the institutions and administrators who never stopped Larry Nassar’s three-decade reign of terror, from Michigan State to USA Gymnastics. The nature of Nassar’s crimes are built on a foundation of mistrust and betrayal. Aquilina, though is the one person who gets them, who respects them, who listens to them.

“You matter,” Aquilina said to one. “You and all the other voices matter.”

Nassar, in a letter to the judge this week, criticized Aquilina, saying she was turning this into a “media circus” for her own benefit.

She swatted that away and, to the delight of the crowd, tore into Nassar.

“I don’t need the media to be focused on me. They are focused on you and your acts, and they are bad acts that you pled to,” Aquilina said.

“I am doing my job,” she said, staring Nassar down. “I try to do it well, unlike what you did.”

The statements continue on Monday. The therapy, too.

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