Michigan judge provides clinic on showing compassion to crime victims at sentencing   8 comments

Michigan trial judge Rosemarie Aquilina is presiding over the sentencing hearing for Lawrence Nassar, the former doctor for U.S.A. Gymnastics. But she’s also running what amounts to a demonstration clinic on how to show compassion to crime victims at sentencing.

The New York Times has a front-page article today on the sentencing hearing, now in its second week. The article is filled with statements Judge Aquilina has made to victims:

  • “Thank you. What would you like me to know?”
  • “Leave your pain here, and go out and do your magnificent things.”
  • “You are so strong and brave.”
  • “The military has not yet come up with fiber as strong as you.”
  • “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 your strength.”

I’ve taught Tom Tyler’s four elements of procedural fairness now for many years: (1) voice, (2) respect, (3) neutrality, and (4) trust/trustworthy authority. Ultimately, you want court participants to feel that they’ve had the opportunity to speak, were treated with respect, and listened to. You also want them to feel that the person wielding the authority is sincere and caring, genuinely out to do the right thing.

Judge Aquilina seems to have hit it out of the park in making sure that victim voices were heard, giving them every ounce of closure that a sentencing hearing can provide, and conveying the very real sense that she sincerely cares about each of them. None of that is easy to do.

I haven’t had a chance to watch the hearings—I have a full-time “day job” as an appellate judge. So I can’t say whether everything she has done was the right thing or the best practice. Legitimate questions can be raised from media accounts on the neutrality element. After all, she still must sentence Nassar, and she must be careful both to be—and to appear—fair in doing so. I am not suggesting she has failed on that point; I simply haven’t seen enough to know. As Professor Stephen Gillers notes in the New York Times article, though, this is a sentencing hearing, not a trial, and Nassar has already pleaded guilty to serious state and federal crimes. So it’s fair for the judge to take that into account at this hearing and even to comment on it.

Set the neutrality issue aside, though, because the significance of this hearing for other judges and those trying to make courts work better comes in the way Judge Aquilina has dealt with the victims. She has provided a model of procedural justice—providing voice, treating victims with respect, and showing that the judge presiding sincerely cares about each of them. And she has done it all in a public courtroom. Those who train judges should carefully look through transcripts or news accounts of this sentencing hearing. Examples of procedurally fair practices abound.

Posted January 24, 2018 by Steve Leben in Courts, Procedural Fairness, Trial Courts

8 responses to “Michigan judge provides clinic on showing compassion to crime victims at sentencing

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Thank you for posting this — it is heartening to know that other judges are taking note of Judge Aquilina’s handling of the sentencing hearing …. I was at dinner with friends the other night and am struck that MANY women are watching these proceedings very, very closely. The court will make a good impression in this case, I think.

    • When proceedings are covered in the media, people have a chance to form impressions about things they don’t normally see. Most judges, most of the time, do their best and try hard to serve the public and the justice system. I’m glad to hear that people are having a chance to see these proceedings. Thanks for the comment!

  2. Pingback: Still more notable commentary on judicial conduct in sentencing of mass molestor – Ben Lee

  3. Pingback: Still more notable commentary on judicial conduct in sentencing of mass molestor – Douglas Cogan

  4. It has been a year since this was posted, and there has been some valid criticism of the way parts of this sentencing hearing we’re handled. I believe the case is on appeal, so we’ll eventually have a chance to see how the Michigan appellate courts evaluate that.

    What I was focusing on in the limited excerpts I had read from the sentencing hearing was the way in which the judge interacted with victims to make them comfortable providing their input for her consideration–and affirming them as people. Respect and an opportunity to be heard should be provided to all participants in a sentencing hearing, including the defendant.

    • I haven’t even read the article, only your comment I! Replying to. And I am replying because it caught my eye at a time that I’ve wished and prayed for this small gesture myself. That being said, I am assuming it takes someone like myself to say thank you. And to say the amount of comfort and strength this very gesture gives to someone whose been shredded of any sense of self, worth, voice, or validation no matter the judgement or conviction in the end. Winning is the acknowledgement you are heard. Not always the punishment or lack of to the accused. A life sentence in a case can be the same for the victim who walks away without the smallest bit of a gesture as, we hear you. You are as important as anyone in this world. We’re sorry you are suffering. We understand.. ThAT helps make a victim, victorious.

      I saw your focus. It’s all I saw. It’s what I spend every day looking for. God bless the judge with the moments to give this to someone at the only time they would have the chance to hear it when it is needed the most.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: