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What Nassar judge did isn't bias. It's empowerment

Editor's Note: (Abigail Pesta is an award-winning journalist whose investigative reporting has appeared in major publications around the world. She is the author of the new book "The Girls: An All-American Town, a Predatory Doctor, and the Untold Story of the Gymnasts Who Brought Him Down." The views expressed here are hers. Read more opinion on CNN.)

(CNN) "I just signed your death warrant."

When Judge Rosemarie Aquilina blasted predator Larry Nassar with those words two years ago this week, sentencing him to decades in prison, her fans cheered her righteous anger. Critics -- Nassar among them -- said her fiery rhetoric went too far.

Abigail Pesta

Nassar, the former doctor for USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University, filed an appeal, claiming bias, even though the sentence was within the framework of his plea deal. That appeal is pending and immaterial -- he will spend his life in prison regardless of the outcome of the appeal, given two other sentences he must serve for convictions in other courts.

That's not stopping him from pursuing it, though. For a man who spent his life manipulating everyone in his path, perhaps it is his last attempt to control something, anything, as he sits behind bars.

Throughout the stunning sentencing hearing in her Ingham County, Michigan, courtroom, Judge Aquilina admonished Nassar, who had pleaded guilty to despicable crimes, while she offered personal words of support to more than 150 survivors who gave victim impact statements about his abuse.

Did the judge get heated? Yes. Should she have done so? Yes. Her response was not a demonstration of bias but of humanity. It was justified.

For seven days in her court, Judge Aquilina listened as dozens of women detailed decades of sexual abuse and trauma at the hands of Nassar and his enablers. Emotions among the survivors ran high -- and spiked further when Judge Aquilina received a letter from Nassar showing a complete lack of remorse. He proclaimed his innocence, describing his methods as "medical, not sexual." He said he had pleaded guilty only to spare his family and community the stress of a trial. He said he was a "good doctor" and that "the media" convinced his patients that "everything I did was wrong and bad. They feel I broke their trust. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned."

When Judge Aquilina asked if he would like to withdraw his guilty plea, he declined.

The judge's most controversial comments came when Lindsey Schuett described her experience by video from South Korea, where she now lives. She was a 16-year-old gymnast when Nassar sexually abused her in 1999. She told adults what had happened -- but she got sent back to Nassar, nonetheless. As she lay on his table, she decided that if he abused her again, she would scream. And she did. She screamed until he stopped and continued to scream as he ushered her out the door.

In her court statement, Lindsey asked Judge Aquilina, "How much is a young girl's quality of life worth? If anyone deserves to never see the light of day again, it is this man." Her question about a girl's worth went on to become a defining phrase for the survivors throughout the court hearings and beyond.

"How much is a young girl's life worth?" the judge replied. "Our Constitution does not allow for cruel and unusual punishment. 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." She continued, "Our country does not have an eye for an eye, and Michigan doesn't have the death penalty, so I don't know how to answer how much is a young girl's life worth, but I have children of my own, and there's not enough gold in the planet that would satisfy that question. And I think all of you victims are gold. You're valuable. I'm so very sorry this happened. And Lindsey, I've heard your scream."

Nassar later jumped on those comments and others, accusing the judge of bias. He filed a motion seeking to disqualify her and be resentenced. But the judge had been fair to both sides in the case. For instance, before Nassar pleaded guilty, Judge Aquilina had put a gag order on the victims to ensure an impartial jury, should the case to go trial.

And Nassar himself had agreed to let the survivors speak. In his plea deal with prosecutors, he agreed to let all of his victims give statements -- including 125 women who had reported his abuse to the police at the time -- in exchange for pleading guilty to only seven charges of criminal sexual conduct in Ingham County. Ultimately, 156 victims, in addition to more than a dozen indirect victims, including parents and spouses, spoke. Judge Aquilina, a longtime proponent of victim impact statements, understood that entire families were victimized.

Separately, Nassar pleaded guilty to three counts of criminal sexual conduct in Eaton County, Michigan, where dozens more women gave statements in court.

Judge Aquilina sentenced him to 40 to 175 years for the seven counts in Ingham County; Judge Janice Cunningham sentenced him to 40 to 125 years for the three counts in Eaton County. The two sentences will run concurrently, after Nassar serves another sentence: a 60-year federal sentence related to the possession of child pornography.

In August 2018, Judge Aquilina denied Nassar's motion for a recusal and a resentencing. Ingham County Circuit Court Chief Judge Richard J. Garcia supported her in a review of the case. In his ruling, he said, Judge Aquilina had not advocated for "cruel and unusual punishment," but rather, had "simply attempted to impress upon the defendant his good fortune that he was protected by our Constitution." Further, he said, Judge Aquilina's remarks showed that "she understood the depth of society's visceral, natural desire for vengeance," noting that she also warned "an eye for an eye" solves nothing. "Such passionate elocution is not the basis of disqualification."

Nassar appealed the decision, and the state appeals court agreed to hear his arguments. He also appealed the other two court sentences, but was denied. Those two sentences will keep him behind bars for life, no matter what happens with the one pending appeal.

In the past two years, Judge Aquilina has continued to show support for survivors of sexual abuse, speaking at events around the country. I've talked with her at some of those events, and we appeared together on an episode of Dr. Phil based on my book "The Girls: An All-American Town, a Predatory Doctor, and the Untold Story of the Gymnasts Who Brought Him Down." Critics say she is showing ongoing bias with these activities. To that I say: No. She is working to prevent this kind of crime spree from happening again -- and to empower survivors.

Some 500 women have now come forward. Critics say the judge should not be supporting or interacting with them, given the pending appeal. But the vast majority of survivors were not included in the seven counts in Ingham County. Judge Aquilina's sentence was based on the seven counts, and the sentence was within the range that Nassar himself approved in the plea deal. So where is the bias?

It is not bias to help victims feel seen and heard. Many women who spoke with me for the book said the judge's words of encouragement in court had made a profound difference in their lives. Judge Aquilina described her courtroom philosophy to me in an interview for the book, saying, "I always speak to victims. I need them to feel and understand that they matter. The power of the robe helps them to feel they are believed." Indeed, the number of Nassar survivors who decided to speak in her court kept growing throughout the weeklong hearing, as they felt that power.

The Michigan attorney general has vigorously defended Judge Aquilina, saying in court documents that the judge expressed the "moral outrage" of the community and that she was "not limited to tepid language" in her right to do so. "In light of Larry Nassar's criminal depravity over the course of decades, the judge's sometimes extreme comments at his sentencing were understandable."

Indeed, Jamie White, a Michigan attorney who represents dozens of Nassar survivors, told me that in his two decades in the courtroom, "The reality is that it's not uncommon for judges to express harsh disdain for defendants; I've heard judges criticize defendants in much stronger terms."

I have seen firsthand how the judge continues to inspire survivors. On the sidelines of an event for Equality League, an advocacy group for the rights of women in sports, in New York last year, I introduced her to Jessica Howard, a three-time national champion gymnast and whistleblower who was among the first to report Nassar to the press. Jessica had never met Judge Aquilina, as she had not given a statement in her court, and she was eager to meet her face to face.

While Jessica had become a powerful advocate for the rights of children in sports, she was still struggling emotionally with the trauma of her own childhood abuse. I watched as Judge Aquilina stood with Jessica before a mirror on the wall, urging her to look in the mirror and tell herself, "I matter." Tears rolled down Jessica's face. It took a little time.

Then she looked in the mirror and said the words, first in a whisper, and then more boldly. "I matter."