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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

YWCA Spokane to host judge who gave victims a voice in USA Gymnastics sex-abuse scandal

Michigan Circuit Court Judge Rosemarie Aquilina, who sentenced the doctor at the center of the USA Gymnastics sex-abuse scandal, will be the keynote speaker at YWCA Spokane’s Women of Achievement awards luncheon on Oct. 11. (Courtesy)

Michigan Circuit Court Judge Rosemarie Aquilina wishes many cases – particularly cases of domestic violence – never made it into her courtroom.

If only people would listen to victims, she said. If only they would learn to spot the signs of an abusive relationship. If only they would do something to stop it.

“It’s long been held that this is a family problem, and people don’t want to interfere,” Aquilina said in a phone call Friday. “The fact is, we do need to interfere. We need to protect people who cannot protect themselves.”

Aquilina will bring that message to Spokane on Oct. 11 as the keynote speaker at the local YWCA’s Women of Achievement awards luncheon.

She made national headlines in January 2018 when she sentenced Larry Nassar, the former USA Gymnastics doctor who sexually abused hundreds of young women and girls over the course of two decades. In that case, too, her focus was on the survivors.

In a courtroom in Lansing, Michigan, Aquilina allowed more than 150 of those victims to confront Nassar, speaking about the effects of his crimes, how he abused his position of trust and the steps he took to keep it all secret.

Aquilina was born in Munich and immigrated to the United States in 1959, when she was 1 year old, to live with her grandparents in Detroit. She became a naturalized citizen at age 11.

Before she was elected as a judge in 2004, she graduated from Michigan State University, earned her law degree from Western Michigan University’s Cooley Law School and served 20 years in the Michigan Army National Guard, where she became the first woman to serve in its Judge Advocate General’s Corps.

From the beginning, Aquilina said, she has allowed anyone connected to a case to speak if they want to be heard – even when it draws complaints from attorneys, law enforcement or courthouse employees.

“It’s always been my practice to do that, to let everybody speak,” she said. “And there’s a healing that happens on both sides because of that.”

After hearing from Nassar’s survivors for seven days, Aquilina sentenced him to 40 to 175 years in prison. She told him from the bench: “It is my honor and privilege to sentence you. You do not deserve to walk outside a prison ever again. You have done nothing to control those urges and anywhere you walk, destruction will occur to those most vulnerable.”

While Nassar’s sentencing captured national attention, it was not Aquilina’s first high-profile case. In 2006, she presided over the trials of Tim and Lisa Holland, who had abused and murdered their adoptive 7-year-old son, Ricky, before dumping his body in a trash bag alongside a country road and feigning concern as groups of volunteers searched for him.

Aquilina said Ricky Holland had provided plenty of indications that he was in danger.

“No one listened to this boy. And all the signs were there. The signs were in the file. The evidence was there. No one checked, and no one listened because he was a child,” Aquilina said. “And it’s really a signifier that we need to listen to everybody and not discount anybody, including children. Sometimes children are more intuitive than anybody.”

The annual Women of Achievement luncheon is YWCA Spokane’s largest fundraising event. The 116-year-old organization assists women, children and families with a range of social justice issues, including domestic violence and early childhood education.

The Oct. 11 program will run from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. at the Spokane Convention Center. Ten women will be honored for their contributions to the community. Tickets can be purchased online.