Think there's little justice in Larry Nassar's guilty plea? Not so fast

Jeff Kowalsky/Getty Images

Former Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar, center, with defense attorneys Shannon Smith, left, and Matt Newberg, right, in the 55th District Court on June 23.

Former USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University doctor Larry Nassar pleaded guilty in federal court yesterday to three child pornography charges. In exchange for his guilty pleas, federal prosecutors have agreed not to pursue charges against Nassar for two additional incidents of alleged sexual crimes with minors.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Sean Lewis said in court that the four minors involved in the cases knew the terms of the plea deal and were in favor of it. But several of Nassar's alleged victims were reportedly upset when they learned the terms of the plea deal; John Manly, an attorney who is part of a group representing more than 90 women in civil suits against Nassar, told ESPN's John Barr that the U.S. attorneys' decision to not prosecute their cases sends the message that they "don't matter."

You'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who doesn't want Nassar, who has been accused of sexually abusing more than 100 girls during his career, to face a penalty for each one of his alleged victims. But does a lack of conviction for every charge mean that justice isn't being served? Not necessarily.

The U.S. operates under a dual criminal justice system, meaning crimes may be prosecuted by the federal or state governments. In Nassar's case, his guilty plea doesn't protect him from the 25 counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct pending in Michigan's state courts.

He hasn't yet been sentenced for his federal guilty plea, and he remains eligible to serve any length of sentence issued in state courts. Each guilty plea entered Tuesday carries a maximum sentence of 20 years behind bars, meaning Nassar could face up to 60 years in federal prison -- even before state prosecution begins. If federal attorneys are displeased with the sentence handed down by the court, or with the outcome of any state-level cases, they are free to prosecute Nassar for any other federal crimes not involving the four victims in the plea bargain.

So the story of justice for Nassar's victims is far from complete. But a reasonable question arises: Even though Nassar faces up to 60 years in federal prison, is it acceptable to forgo prosecution for other extremely serious charges?

That course of action is actually quite normal. From March 2015 to March 2016, there were 79,751 defendants accused in the federal system. Of those, 70,111, or 88 percent, were disposed of with guilty pleas. Of the sexual offenses within that group, 91 percent (2,982 out of 3,285) were resolved with guilty pleas.

Guilty pleas are a way of life. But why is that?

There are no guaranteed convictions or acquittals in the justice system. In each case, prosecutors and defense attorneys must weigh the financial, emotional and time burdens of a trial against the lack of a guaranteed outcome. Federal attorneys often have tremendous caseloads, and plea bargains offer the guaranteed conviction and penalty that trials can't -- for a fraction of the time and cost. It frees them up to prosecute more criminals.

If [Nassar] goes to trial, any testimony he gives that suggests he isn't a child sexual predator could be called into question. That's a big win for state prosecutors.
Cecelia Townes

Nassar's swift conviction at the federal level also works in favor of state prosecutors. They don't have to wait for a federal trial to wrap up; the state of Michigan should be able to schedule trials within the coming months. Furthermore, they can kick off their cases with Nassar classified as a convicted child sexual offender, which will help the state disprove Nassar's veracity (or truthfulness). And if he goes to trial, any testimony he gives that suggests he isn't a child sexual predator could be called into question. That's a big win for state prosecutors and significantly limits the way Nassar can defend himself.

In an ideal society, every guilty criminal would be prosecuted for every crime. Nassar's guilty pleas all but guarantee that every alleged victim's story won't be told, and he'll likely receive less jail time than if he had been convicted of all possible offenses.

But his guilty pleas also show that the U.S. criminal justice system works in many ways. Nassar will spend a significant amount of time in jail. The first of what will likely be many convictions came a little more than a year after the Indianapolis Star first released the results of its investigation into USA Gymnastics, a relatively short amount of time for state or federal criminal prosecution (Nassar was arrested in December).

Nassar has been publicly disgraced and has a long road of accusers and sentences ahead. Justice is being served. It may be less than ideal, but it's a swift and damning justice. Hopefully each alleged victim can find solace and justice in this less-than-ideal system.

Cecelia Townes is a proud graduate of UCLA School of Law and the Real HU in Washington. She used to ball so hard on the tennis court. Now she serves it up on her blog,, and with student-athletes with Beyond the Game LLC. Follow Cecelia on Twitter & Instagram @SportyEsquire

Related Content