Today, Rachael Denhollander—the first gymnast to publicly accuse former USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar of sexual assault—was the last woman to deliver a statement at his sentencing hearing. A few hours later, the disgraced doctor was sentenced up to 175 years in prison.
It has been 18 months since Denhollander first spoke out about the abuse she suffered when she was 15 years old, and justice has been far too slow. “This—what it took to get here, what we had to go through for our voices to be heard because of the responses of the adults in authority—has greatly compounded the damages we suffered. And it matters,” she said, speaking deliberately.
Addressing the judge, she continued, “I plead with you, as you deliberate the sentence to give Larry: Send a message that these victims are worth everything… I plead with you to impose the maximum sentence under the plea agreement.”
Before Denhollander’s testimony, 155 other victims had appeared in Judge Rosemarie Aquilinia’s courtroom in Lansing, Michigan, reading harrowing statements that detailed the abuse they suffered at Nassar’s hands—some of whom said they were as young as six when it occurred. At the beginning of the sentencing hearing process, Judge Aquilina vowed to let every victim share her story. When the hearing started, court officials expected 88 women to speak; that number had nearly doubled by the time it drew to a close.
In November, Nassar pleaded guilty to sexually abusing seven minors. In addition, he has already been sentenced to 60 years in federal prison for possessing child pornography. USA Gymnastics, which quietly fired Nassar in 2015 after learning of the allegations against him, has been accused of orchestrating a massive cover-up of widespread sexual abuse in the organization.
"We will use our voices to make sure you get what you deserve: a life of suffering spent replaying the words delivered by this powerful army of survivors."
Judge Aquilina emerged as an advocate for the victims who spoke in her courtroom, offering them warm praise and support throughout the week-long proceedings. “Leave your pain here, and go out and do your magnificent things,” she told one young woman after her statement, according to the New York Times. She commended another’s courage, adding, “Mattel ought to make toys so that little girls can look at you and say, ‘I want to be her.’ Thank you so much for being here and for you strength.”
Several of the women who delivered victim impact statements spoke of a sense of solidarity and catharsis. “Hearing the voices of my peers have given me the strength to tell my story,” said dancer Whitney Burns, the 125th woman to give testimony.
“We were ultimately strong enough to take you down.” said Kaylee Lorincz, the 155th victim to speak, early Wednesday morning. “Not by one, but by an army of survivors. We are Jane Does no more.”
“Imagine feeling like you have no power and no voice,” said Olympic gold medalist Aly Raisman in court on Friday. “Well, you know what, Larry? I have both power and voice, and I am only just beginning to use them. All these brave women have power, and we will use our voices to make sure you get what you deserve: a life of suffering spent replaying the words delivered by this powerful army of survivors.”
According to Stephen Gillers, a professor of law at New York University who focuses on the laws and ethical rules that govern lawyers and judges, Judge’s Aquilina’s conduct has wide-sweeping reach not only for the victim but society, too. “It is cathartic for the victim,” he tells Broadly. “The statements are broadcast on the internet, and the victims get a change to be heard, to tell the world their pain and the harm that was caused.”
In December, some advocates expressed concern that not enough attention was being paid to Nassar’s rampant sexual abuse. Since the sentencing hearing started last week, however, press coverage and national attention has skyrocketed.
But Judge Aquilina’s conduct isn’t only important because she’s brought increased national attention to the issue, Gillers emphasizes: She has also validated each victim’s experience. “The judge is the moral authority in the courtroom,” she explains. “Through her repeated comments on the bravery and courage of each victim, she exercises that moral authority on their behalf. By commenting on each statement, she validates the effect of the harm to the victims.”
During the final sentencing today, Judge Aquilina seemed relish in her final chance to exert this moral authority over Nassar. “It is my honor and privilege to sentence you,” she said. When noting the length of the 40 to 175 year sentence, she added, “I’ve just signed your death warrant.”