One year ago, all eyes were on a courtroom in Ingham County, as one woman after the next walked up to a podium and faced her abuser. With each testimony, each woman reclaimed her voice and her power.
On that day, on Jan. 24, 2018, Judge Rosemarie Aquilina sentenced former USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar to 40 to 175 years in prison after the disgraced ex-doctor pleaded guilty to seven first degree criminal sexual conduct charges in Ingham County. After years of being silenced, the survivors’ voices were finally being heard.
At the start of the sentencing hearing, 88 women and girls were expected to give victim-impact statements. By the end of the seventh day, that number had almost doubled as 156 women and girls spoke or had statements read on their behalf. Some, like Sterling Riethman, had been publicly identified for close to a year. Riethman was one of the final three statements, something that had been agreed upon before the start of the hearing. With so many women coming forward each day, Riethman’s statement was pushed back until Jan. 24, 2018. A year later, she reflected on the impact of those seven days inside an Ingham County courtroom.
“I think the sentencing really brought to light the severity of the situation. Before it had been in the news for a year but not very prevalent,” Riethman said in a phone interview. “It wasn’t something a lot of people were paying attention to. It was something that people could brush off and say I don’t need to pay attention to that.
“That week in January made the world stop and pay attention.”
The sheer number of women and girls to come forward was one of the reasons why. Another was just how many of the survivors dropped their pseudonyms. More than 100 women were publicly identified, many for the first time during the hearing.
“Seeing all of those women in one place, in one room, you start to really understand the magnitude of this,” Riethman said. “It’s easy to look at a list in court documents and see Jane B12, Jane B13, Jane B14 and not really have an understanding of who those women are. When you see girl after girl after girl walk up to the podium and introduce herself and give an impact statement, that’s what created this movement.”
Larissa Boyce agreed. “We all charged forward together and became this unit that wasn’t going to be stopped. I think people feeling our emotions, seeing our emotions, that really started a change,” she said. “[It] showed so many people that it is okay to talk about sexual assault and abuse. We need to talk about it because if we don’t talk about it, it’s going to continue to happen.”
Boyce reported Nassar’s conduct to then-Michigan State gymnastics coach Kathie Klages in 1997. Klages told Boyce, then 16, that she was mistaken and that she could file a report but it would have consequences for both Nassar and Boyce. It was one of more than half a dozen occasions where survivors came forward and the report was brushed aside.
Initially, Jessica Smith wasn’t planning on giving an impact statement. She decided to write a letter to Judge Aquilina to tell her story. But as she sat in Aquilina’s courtroom listening to other survivors speak, something changed.
“I was like ‘no, I want him to hear it. He needs to hear what I have to say,’” Smith said. “As I went on and on and even after the fact, I realized the person who really needed to hear what I had to say was me. You walked up to the podium one way and exit the podium a different way.”
At the center of it was Aquilina, who has been praised by the survivors for her approach throughout the seven days of victim-impact statements. That approach wasn’t unusual—it was how Aquilina handled all cases in her courtroom. The Nassar case just happened to be the one where the rest of the world was watching.
“For these women especially—who had been silenced for so long, who had not been believed—it was important that I let them know that they can leave their pain here and go do their magnificent things because they are all that important individually,” Aquilina said in a phone interview. “Not just as a group, not just as a number, not just as a name or an athlete, but as a human being, each one of them mattered.”
But even she couldn’t have anticipated the number of survivors that would come through her courtroom.
“Everyday there was a new number and the girls empowered each other,” Aquilina said. “Many of them said they were going to use a pseudonym or a number and then suddenly they came forward and said I’m not a number, I’m a name. They listened to other survivors and said, I’m joining in, I will no longer be quiet.”
Boyce credits Aquilina, MSU police detective Andrea Munford and assistant attorney general Angela Povilaitis for helping survivors get their voices back. “[It] started with all of them believing in us and then we could finally believe in ourselves,” Boyce said. “They gave us the power to do what we did. It was this watershed moment and the world started paying attention.”
Since that day in the courtroom, Nassar has filed to appeal his sentence in Ingham County and last month, the Michigan Court of Appeals announced that it would review the case. Nassar is asking for a new sentencing hearing and a new judge to preside over that hearing. Aquilina denied his appeal last summer.
The last 12 months have brought more fallout. Five officials have been charged criminally in the aftermath, including former MSU president Lou Anna Simon (lying to police) and ex-USA Gymnastics CEO Steve Penny (tampering with evidence). Last May, Michigan State agreed to a record-setting $500 million settlement with 332 of the survivors. There are more than 500 who have come forward. MSU interim president John Engler announced his resignation on Jan. 16.
USA Gymnastics is looking for its third president since Penny’s March 2017 resignation. The organization filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on Dec. 5, one month after the U.S. Olympic Committee began the decertification process to strip USA Gymnastics of its national governing body status.
The USOC hasn’t escaped unscathed either. Just weeks after Nassar’s trial wrapped up, then-president Scott Blackmun stepped down citing health reasons. Alan Ashley, chief of sport performance for the USOC, was fired last month after a USOC commissioned report revealed that Ashley and Blackmun knew about the Nassar case for a year and did not inform anyone else at the USOC. Two Senators have pushed for the FBI to investigate Blackmun for lying to Congress.
Institutional change has been slow with the three organizations resistant to making big changes all at once. The sentencing from a year ago started a conversation that must continue.
“People started to realize we need to listen, we need to have these conversations, we need to pay attention to what these women are saying because it has value, it has meaning, it’s important,” Riethman said. “We can’t just sweep this under the rug anymore.”