Written by Khadija Lalani
On January 24, 2018, former USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar was sentenced to up to 175 years in prison for sexually abusing scores of athletes he treated over the course of several years. Nassar’s sentencing hearing has drawn nationwide attention to the role of victim impact statements in our judicial system. Generally, victim impact statements involve written or oral communication from a crime victim about how the crime has affected them. All fifty states allow victim impact statements at some point in the sentencing process, and judges often take those statements into consideration along with other factors when determining the sentence.
Nassar pled guilty to seven counts of first-degree criminal sexual misconduct and admitted to using his position as an entrusted doctor to abuse athletes who came to him seeking medical treatment. As part of the plea agreement, Nassar agreed to have his victims provide statements in court. Judge Rosemarie Aquilina allowed all 156 victims to present their statements in court, with Larry Nassar seated in the witness stand before them.
The role of victim impact statements in both serving justice and empowering the victim has been widely debated. While some strongly believe that the practice enables previously silenced victims to share their stories and have their voices heard, others point out that such statements could cause a judge or jury to use subjective harm to the victim as a proxy for the defendant’s culpability, rather than looking at the weight of the evidence.
The Nassar hearing, however, is unique for two reasons. First, just prior to the sentencing hearing on the sexual assault charges, Nassar had already been sentenced to sixty years in prison on federal child pornography charges. He had no prospects for escaping a substantial amount of time in prison, irrespective of the result in the sexual assault case. In fact, it was clear that he would be spending the remainder of his years in prison no matter what. Second, over 150 victims came forward to present their statements and expose the horrific realities of Nassar’s behavior while the nation watched. Judge Aquilina’s decision to allow each victim to speak was not unanimously lauded. Fellow Ingham County Circuit Judge William Collette remarked, “Doing justice is one thing. It is not a judge’s function to get people healed.”
Judge Collette may be right that it is not a judge’s job to heal people, but the inclusion of victims in the Nassar case has also served a broader purpose of uncovering the truth. In a case where formal witness testimony was precluded by a plea agreement, the presentation of victim impact statements by women who were ready and able to do so publicly have exposed Larry Nassar as who he really is—a man with a decades-long history of sexual misconduct, who was lucky enough to find himself working among a cohort of negligent, if not equally reprehensible adults who tacitly condoned or defended his criminal behavior at the expense of innocent women and children.
As law students and lawyers, we often discuss the imperative of finding the truth. In Larry Nassar’s case, his guilty plea alone would fail to expose the whole truth. As one victim, Rachael Denhollander, said in her statement, “[T]he truth about what Larry has done must be realized to its fullest depth if justice is to ever be served.”