Victim impact statements take on new role after Nassar case

Thursday, March 15, 2018 - 5:29pm

Assistant Attorney General Angela Povilaitis and LSA freshman Morgan McCaul discuss the power of victim impact statements in Larry Nassar's prosecution at Hutchins Hall Thursday.

Assistant Attorney General Angela Povilaitis and LSA freshman Morgan McCaul discuss the power of victim impact statements in Larry Nassar's prosecution at Hutchins Hall Thursday. Buy this photo
Alexandria Pompei/Daily

Despite daunting barriers to reporting, nearly 300 survivors have come forward with stories of the assault they suffered at the hands of Larry Nassar, former USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University doctor. Angela Povilaitis, assistant attorney general of Michigan, served as an advocate for many of these women over the course of a week during Nassar’s January sentencing trial in Ingham County Court. Thursday afternoon, Povilatis — accompanied by LSA freshman and survivor Morgan McCaul — spoke at the University of Michigan Law School on the use of victim impact statements during the Nassar trials. Povilaitis explained victim impact statements are not simply powerful for the survivors, but have transformed the way perpetrators of sexual assault are being prosecuted.

Originally, 90 women were scheduled to give victim impact statements during Nassar’s sentencing. However, as the momentum and support for survivors grew, more women reached out to Povilaitis, asking to tell their stories of abuse. 156 women in total gave their statements for Nassar — and the world — to hear.

Povilaitis highlighted how unique this case was considering its length, breadth, the nature of the crime and the number of victims who spoke and came forward –– about 260 to 300 survivors in total.

“(Sexual assault cases) are the most difficult cases to prosecute, there’s an inherent skepticism, there’s societal victim blaming, there’s various myths about how rape and sexual assault victims are supposed to act and behave and disclose,” Povilaitis said. “This sentencing hearing will shift that.” 

She went on to explain she could have brought charges for all 250 survivors at the time. However, she chose to only bring charges for 10, as it would not only be difficult and prolonged to evaluate 250 individual cases, but also unnecessary with Nassar’s combined federal charges for possession of child pornography for sexual abuse, his consecutive sentences imprison him for an additional 40 to 175 years on top of his 60-year federal sentence. Povilaitis also explained these 10 cases were specifically selected in an effort to include survivors from outside of Michigan.

For those survivors outside of the 10 pressing charges, Judge Rosemarie Aquilina allowed for an unprecedented amount of victim impact statements. Many judges, including Aquilina herself, have previously limited the duration, content or number of victim impact statements allowed, which contributed to the culture of silencing survivors. For Nassar’s sentencing, however, Aquilina allowed for any survivor to speak, and even applauded them for doing so — creating a controversy on its own.

“It was very refreshing to see a judge who acknowledged their pain and suffering, listened with a kind ear, and I think it was really effective in their healing process,” Povilaitis said.

The momentum of the testimonies that originally made national headlines, however, is now up against institutional barriers. The Michigan Association of State Universities — a coalition including the University — succeeded in scaling back legislation in the state legislature increasing resources for survivors. The association claimed the package of bills would have a “profound impact” on schools. Interim MSU president John Engler angered many surivors on Thursday with comments accusing the state bills of interfering in mediation between MSU and parties suing the university. In his testimony before the state Senate higher education subcommittee, Engler also noted MSU’s legal fees would be sourced from taxpayers and students.  

The package of bills the state Senate and universities clashed over increased penalties for the possession of child pornography, redefining the standards for how universities and institutions must respond to allegations of sexual assault and extending the statute of limitations in which victims can report sexual assault.

Nassar agreed to hear victim impact statements as a part of his plea deal, which Povilaitis argued was a key component of the case. She explained a criminal conviction would be more likely to be overturned in the near future, while a plea deal will preserve this precedent of how perpetrators of sexual assault will be prosecuted in the future.

“The plea agreement is what saves us, too,” Povilaitis added.

Povilaitis and McCaul spoke on the tangible change they felt in the courtroom during Nassar’s sentencing, and how far-reaching this change has been since its conclusion. Of the 156 victim impact statements, several were videos from survivors around the world, and many survivors flew in to speak. As more survivors flew in and spoke, and as more women found strength and their voices, more women publicly came forward.

“One of the most amazing things I witnessed and observed was this victim transformation,” Povilaitis said.

Povilaitis noted this change from “victim to survivor, or a champion of change,” with special attention to McCaul.

McCaul explained how she first came out as a survivor of Nassar’s abuse in November 2017, and originally wanted to remain anonymous. By January 2018, however, she had found the strength to speak publicly at the widely-broadcasted Nassar trial.

“There was an intense feeling of empowerment (in the courtroom),” McCaul said.

She identified this turning point as symbolic of her transition from childhood to adulthood, and thanked Povilaitis, her victim advocate, the detective on the Nassar case and her “sister survivors” for their support.

McCaul’s victim impact statement, along with the other 155 statements from her sister survivors, have changed the precedent for how victims are perceived, Povilaitis and McCaul posed. Indeed, many have advocated for palpable policy change, from both a policing and judicial perspective.

Povilaitis praised the Meridian Township Police Department for the changes they have made so far. Brianne Randall-Gay reported her assault by Nassar to MTPD, but was told she simply didn’t understand the difference between medical treatment and assault, and was dismissed. MTPD has since apologized to Randall-Gay, and is currently working with her to create a training program to teach their officers how to respond to sexual assault disclosures.

Povilatis said Nassar’s survivors have not only contributed to the momentum of the #MeToo movement, but have created a shift in how perpetrators of sexual assault will be prosecuted.

“This story is really about them and their courage and their bravery, and really the movement they’ve started and continued to move forward,” she said.