Michigan appeals court upholds Larry Nassar sentencing

Larry Nassar's lengthy sentence for his crimes in Michigan was upheld Tuesday in a 2-1 ruling by the state's Court of Appeals.

The former team doctor for USA Gymnastics and Michigan State's athletic department had asked the court system to overturn a 175-year prison sentence handed to him in January 2018 after he pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting his young patients. Nassar argued that the judge who sentenced him, Ingham County's Judge Rosemarie Aquilina, had shown bias against him during his sentencing hearing and in public comments afterward.

The appeals court judges wrote Tuesday that Nassar's argument didn't reach the burden of proof to show that Aquilina was biased.

"I am grateful the defendant's conviction was upheld and request for resentencing was denied," said former Michigan Assistant Attorney General Angela Povilaitis, the lead prosecutor in the Nassar case. "The survivors demonstrated tremendous courage, strength and resiliency at the sentencing hearing in January 2018, which continues today."

Nassar's Ingham County prison sentence is one of three delivered to the disgraced doctor after hundreds of women came forward to say he had sexually abused them, mostly under the guise of medical treatment. Nassar, 57, is currently serving a 60-year prison sentence for child pornography charges at a federal prison near Orlando, Florida.

Along with the 175-year Ingham County ruling, Nassar was also sentenced to 125 years in neighboring Eaton County. Nassar's previous appeals to his federal and Eaton County sentences were also unsuccessful.

While the appeals judges did not conclude that Nassar deserved a new sentencing hearing, they did offer some rebuke to Aquilina, who earned widespread fame for her biting comments from the bench and her public support for sexual assault survivors after the ruling. Nassar has accused Aquilina of reveling in the significant media attention that came from the hearing.

Of the three appeals court judges, one offered a dissenting opinion, saying that overlooking Aquilina's comments during the hearing "challenges basic notions of judicial neutrality, due process, the right to counsel, and the use of social media by judges." The dissenting judge said it is not Aquilina's role at sentencing to act as an advocate for survivors of sexual abuse.

More than 150 women provided victim impact statements during the sentencing hearing, which lasted for nearly two weeks in January 2018. Aquilina thanked most of the speakers and commented on their remarks after each statement. She also spoke harshly to Nassar on multiple occasions. She told Nassar that she had "signed [his] death warrant" and that laws forbidding cruel and unusual punishment were keeping her from penalizing him more severely.

"Our constitution does not allow for cruel and unusual punishment," Aquilina said during the hearing. "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."

The two appeals court judges who ruled against Nassar's request for a new sentence said those comments were "wholly inappropriate" and "inflammatory hyperbole." They expressed concern that such comments could erode public trust in the justice system. They also said Aquilina's media appearances, including attending The ESPYS, where Nassar survivors were presented with the 2018 Arthur Ashe Courage Award, were "unwise."

"I stand by what I did," Aquilina told ESPN on Tuesday when asked about the appellate court ruling. "I am a voice of the public, and that's a judge's opinion."

Aquilina said she kept within the legal boundaries of Nassar's plea agreement during his Ingham County sentencing hearing and gave him multiple opportunities to withdraw his plea. With respect to the dissenting opinion from the state appellate judge, who wrote that she appeared biased and expressed "personal solidarity with the victims," Aquilina said she has no regrets about her behavior.

"I've taken my share of hits for doing what I do. But in the balance of it ... knowing the effect of listening to people and letting people speak on both sides, seeing the positive effects of all of that, I don't have any regrets. Not in this case and not in others," Aquilina told ESPN.

The judges who denied Nassar's request said that the law doesn't require a judge to be tepid after a defendant has pleaded guilty. They ruled that Aquilina's comments, when viewed in full context, show that she was not pining for vigilante justice or seriously advocating for Nassar's physical harm. Aquilina told the appeals court that her comments during the hearing were designed to try to defuse the tension inside the courtroom as tempers flared during statements about Nassar's wrongdoing.

When asked about the appellate court decision, Jessica Zimbelman, one of Nassar's state-appointed attorneys, told ESPN Tuesday, "We're pleased that at least one Court of Appeals judge recognized that the trial court here was not neutral, wasn't fair and was biased and we are planning to file an application to the [Michigan] Supreme Court within the next 56 days."

If the state's highest court decides not to take up Nassar's appeal, that would bring an end to his Michigan criminal case, Zimbelman said.