Barracuda Aquilina: The judge who decided Larry Nassar’s fate

Judge Rosemarie Aquilina looks at Larry Nassar, who she later sentenced to 40 to 175 years in prison for sexual assault charges.
Image: Scott Olson/Getty Images

The sentencing hearing that will go down in history featured more than 150 brave women speaking out about their traumatic experiences with Larry Nassar and ended with a judge sentencing the former USA Gymnastics doctor to 40 to 175 years in prison. 

In doing so Judge Rosemarie Aquilina powerfully condemned his behavior and advocated for the women he’s hurt. Aquilina’s actions resonated with those watching, prompting survivors to label her a hero and leaving many with the desire to know more about her.

“As much as it was my honor and privilege to hear the sister survivors, it is my honor and privilege to sentence you. Because, sir, you do not deserve to walk outside of a prison ever again,” Aquilina said to Nassar.

Who is Judge Aquilina?

Though Aquilina wasn’t a prominent figure in the public eye before residing over Nassar’s sentencing, she prides herself on being a fighter and is known for being fierce and outspoken. They used to call her Barracuda Aquilina when she served in the National Guard for 20 years, retiring in 2006. 

“I’m a fighter,” Aquilina said in a 2014 interview with Washtenaw County Legal News. “I don’t take no for an answer. I don’t let anyone create a mold for me. I’m going to make my own mold. I stand up for people and say, ‘We’re going to do what’s right.'”

In 1986, Aquilina became the first female JAG Officer in the history of the Michigan Army National Guard.

In addition to her job as a federal judge for the Circuit Court of Ingham County, Michigan, she also works as an adjunct law professor at Western Michigan University’s Thomas M. Cooley Law School and Michigan State University College of Law, teaching classes on military, family, and animal law, as well as child abuse and defending battered women, according to her biography on the Ingham County Court website.

She also loves cowboy boots and is the author of a fiction book called Triple Cross Killera thriller about a narcissist whoreceives letters kids write to Santa and wreaks havoc. Her author bio explains she’s the mother of five children, former owner of Aquilina Law Firm, and she used to host a radio talk show called “Ask the Family Lawyer.”

Aquilina doesn’t plan to do any media interviews until after the appeals period is over. She’s had several requests already

“The story is not about me,” she said in court, according to the Detroit Free Press, noting that she’d want a survivor to be interviewed along with her.

Aquilina’s no stranger to controversial cases

While this might be the first you’ve heard of Aquilina, the judge has encountered her fair share of challenging, high-profile, and controversial cases.

In 2013, Aquilina ruled Detroit’s bankruptcy filing was a violation of Michigan’s constitution and made the bold decision to send a copy of her judgment to President Barack Obama suggesting he look into the issue.

“This was not a decision that was hard for me,” she told Legal News. “This was the law, and our state Constitution has to stand for something, as do our laws. And ultimately people can make fun of my decision or not. It’s up to them. I follow the law, and I think eventually I’ll be upheld.”

Aquilina has sentenced serial rapists and presided over a high-profile 2006 case in which a 7-year-old’s adoptive parents were charged for his murder. 

“Oftentimes I don’t know what I’m going to do or say because I still leave it open for the attorneys to change my mind,” she told Legal News. “And then something always happens that says, ‘This is the right answer.’

She took Nassar’s sentencing a step further, and for that we thank her

A major reason Aquilina made such a lasting impression during Nassar’s sentencing is because she so openly supported the women and girls who came forward to share their stories. Nassar had pled guilty to 10 counts of sexual assault in two Michigan counties, but as part of his plea deal he had to listen to more than 150 of his accusers share victim impact statements in court. 

“I just signed your death warrant” was just one of the many powerful statements Aquilina made after tearing up a letter Nassar wrote to the court in an attempt to raise doubts about his accusers’ testimonies.

Many of the women who spoke out against the former doctor, including Olympic gold-medalist Simone Biles were grateful for the empathy she displayed for survivors.

“You are my hero,” Biles said of Aquilina in a tweet after the sentencing. “He will no longer have the power to steal our happiness or joy.”

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