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Three alleged victims testify against Nassar in graphic, tense court hearing

Kate Wells
Larry Nassar, center, flanked by his defense attorneys, Shannon Smith (left) and Matt Newburg

The courtroom was ready for an intense day: this is, after all, a case in which the defendant has been accused of sexual assault by not just the seven women and girls in this particular hearing, but by more than 80 complainants thus far, according to the Michigan State Police.

It was just the first of what may well be three days of testimony, as 55th District Court Judge Donald Allen weighs whether there’s enough evidence against Dr. Larry Nassar, former MSU sports doctor and  Olympic gymnastics team physician, to go to trial in this case.

Nassar is accused of sexually assaulting these 7 women and girls under the guise of treatment. But he's innocent, his attorney maintain, and only performed legitimate medical techniques on his patients. Friday's hearing gave us an early look at how Nassar's defense team will work to prove that: by attacking the alleged victims' credibility and demonstrating their lack of medical expertise.  

Credit Kate Wells/Michigan Radio
Rachael Denhollander was the first alleged victim to take the stand Friday

One of the defendants who testified Friday is a minor, so young and inexperienced that she had to be gently walked through terminology for where she was allegedly touched. “You know when you pee, where you wipe? Did he touch you in that area?” the prosecutor asked.

And we got a surprise lesson in what happens when, apparently, one of the TV news cameras in the courtroom unwittingly live streams a young woman’s testimony, after reporters were explicitly instructed not to reveal any of her identifying information. The judge temporarily stopped the proceedings, a frantic mini-investigation ensued, and the TV crew allegedly responsible was asked to leave or face contempt of court charges.

Rachael Denhollander’s nearly two-hour-long testimony

Rachael Denhollander was the prosecution's first witness. She testified for nearly two hours straight, which is a long time to have half a dozen news cameras trained on you and a full gallery of spectators watching silently, as you walk through the alleged sexual abuse you say you experienced at age 15.

Denhollander has been public about her alleged assault by Nassar since September, whenIndyStarran an explosive story about her and two other former gymnasts. Another alleged victim told the court Friday that Denhollander’s story gave her the "courage" to come forward.

Denhollander’s been vocal in the media since then, both about this criminal case and the civil suit she’s joined against Nassar and his former employers, Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics.

She’s the only one of the seven alleged victims in this particular case who's using her real name in court records. The others are referred to as Victims A through G.

But that’s clearly not the only reason the prosecution put her on the stand first. Denhollander’s a strong witness, a married, 32-year-old mother of three with a law degree and a poised, calm demeanor.

She can also deliver memorable lines that land with a punch. When defense attorney Shannon Smith cross examined her Friday afternoon, she prodded Denhollander as to whether Nassar may have just been treating the “core area” where she was injured – her glutes, pelvis, etc? “I don’t think the clitoris is included in your core,” Denhollander shot back. When the defense asked her whether Nassar’s treatments may have actually helped with her injuries, Denhollander said, no, actually, sexual touch doesn’t help. “I have sex with my husband, and I still have pinched nerves afterwards.”

In her testimony, Denhollander described being a 15-year-old gymnast who felt “grateful” to get to see Dr. Nassar for wrist and back injuries. Many gymnasts, past and current, describe Nassar as a peerless figure in that community, a “household name” when it came to helping them heal.

Denhollander says her first appointment with him was in February of 2000. Nassar diagnosed her with new insights she hadn’t  from other sports doctors, she says, and they began rounds of x-rays, massage treatments, bone scans and physical therapy.

Credit Kate Wells
Assistant AG Angela Povilaitis questions a witness, as Dr. Larry Nassar and his attorney, Matt Newburg, look on

At one point in that first treatment, however, Denhollander says Nassar moved his hand underneath her baggy sport shorts, inside her underwear, and penetrated her vagina with his fingers. “Am I hurting you, Rach?” she says he whispered.

Denhollander says she was srprised, but assumed this was the kind of treatment she’d heard about from a friend of her mom’s, who’d had child birth injuries and received intravaginal adjustments.

Plus, she told the court, so much of gymnastics is about pushing past any personal pain or discomfort, and being comfortable with adults handling your body as you attempt new, sometimes dangerous, skills.

“You have to trust the person that’s touching you, because your safety’s dependent upon it,” she said. And then, later: “I thought it was what needed to be done. If he said it needed to be done, it needed to be done.”

Plus, there was Nassar's long career and stellar reputation. If he’d been doing something wrong, she said, someone would have stopped him. 

But over time the penetration escalated, she said, and soon included rectal penetration as well. Finally, in their fifth appointment, Denhollander says Nassar moved his hand up her shirt to massage her breast. His face was flushed, he was breathing heavily, “and I could see his erection in his pants very clearly.”

“I froze, because I knew that was sexual assault,” she told the court.

So why didn’t you say anything to him, or to your mom, Assistant Attorney General Angela Povilaitis asked?

“I froze, I couldn’t…I was very confused. I didn’t know how to reconcile who he was supposed to be, and what he had done. And I didn’t want to give it words. Words make it real,” Denhollander replied.

Nassar never explained why he was doing intravaginal or rectal procedures, she told the court. Nor did he get her consent, or her mother’s consent, to do them. He also did not use gloves.

Years later, she obtained her medical transcripts from these appointments, Denhollander said. There was no mention of intravaginal techniques, penetration or breast massage.

That fifth appointment was April 18th, 2000. Denhollander says she broke her foot a few days later, and went back to see Nassar again for foot treatment. But she told him her back was better, she says, so she wouldn’t have to go through the same types of “massages.” That was a lie, she told the court. Her back had not improved. She became convinced that Nassar had assaulted her, and that she wasn’t his first victim. His assaults seemed so well rehearsed, she said, there was no way she had been a “test case” for him.

The cross examination: arguing Denhollander’s credibility is suspect

Defense attorneys Shannon Smith and Matt Newburg attempted to unravel Denhollander’s testimony the same way they cross examined another witness later that day. First, their questions were aimed at demonstrating that Denhollander is not a doctor, much less a trained osteopath with a specialty in sports medicine.   

“She’s not an expert, she has no basis to know it’s not a legitimate treatment,” Smith told Judge Allen on Friday. And even though Denhollander may not have experienced intravaginal or anal procedures with other doctors, Smith said, “You never asked Dr. Nassar, ‘Can you explain to me why you did that, or what the purpose was, or what supports that this was necessary?’”

“I did not,” Denhollander responded. “I felt it was shameful enough. I didn’t want to draw extra attention to it.”

Then, later:  “If you were to have the opportunity to sit down with Nassar and have him explain why things were done and what he saw, you would not be interested in that opportunity, is that correct?” Smith asked.

“There is nothing that he can say, no,” Denhollander replied.

Credit Kate Wells / Michigan Radio NPR
Michigan Radio NPR
Shannon Smith, one of Dr. Nassar's defense attorney, cross examines a witness Friday

But Denhollander continued seeing Dr. Nassar, Smith pointed out, even after she claims she felt assaulted. And years later as an adult and an attorney,  didn't Denhollander spent a lot of time pouring over criminal sexual assault law and researching medical procedures to build her case?

“I think when it comes to stopping a child predator, every effort should be put in,” Denhollander replied. “So yes, I did spend a lot of time.” 

But isn’t it possible, Smith argued, that Denhollander’s motives here are suspect – given all the media interviews she's done, maybe she just wants attention? Or maybe she knows she stands to gain more money from Nassar, or MSU, the more she exaggerates this alleged abuse?

"No," Denhollander said. Publicity was the last thing she wanted, she said, but she felt it was the only way to have her allegations heard.

“I think there are things more important than what I want, and stopping a child predator is one of them,” she said.

After Smith finished her questions, Denhollander's attorney, Assistant AG Povilaitis, pushed back on those insinuations.

“Are you in some way lying about what he did to you, to get some kind of large damage?” Povilaitis asked Denhollander.

“No, ma’am.”

“Is everything that you’ve told us today…the truth?”

“Yes ma’am.”

Two other alleged victims testify, including a minor

The rest of the afternoon was devoted to the testimony of two more witnesses, both of whom wish to go unnamed and are referred to in court records as Victims G and Victim D.

Victim G is now in her early 20’s, and saw Nassar for years when she was a young gymnast. They were close, she says, and she could talk to him about “friends and boys, coaches and gymnastics.” She frequently saw him for treatment at his home in Holt, where he regularly worked with patients in his basement.

The digital penetration of her vagina began when she was 13, Victim G said, and eventually included anal penetration as well. “I felt for sure uncomfortable, but I didn’t think it was wrong,” she told the court. “I thought it was a medical procedure. That’s what I was told in this.”

"Who told you that?" Povilaitis asked.

"Dr. Nassar," Victim G replied. “He told me, thank you for trusting him for doing this, because it can be uncomfortable, because there are pressure points [inside the vagina] that can relieve back pain,'” she said.

She and her other friends talked about these treatments with Nassar, she told the court: how they thought they were weird and uncomfortable, how they didn’t like them or think it helped with their injuries, but that because they were all experiencing it, they assumed it was normal.

It was only in the past year that Victim G and another friend began reflecting on whether “something was wrong” about those treatments, she said. And then when Denhollander’s story came out in the news, that gave them “the courage” to report their experiences.

“It made it less embarrassing and less scary to come forward," Victim G says of Denhollander's public story. "We didn't want to do this on our own."

The third and final alleged victim to testify Friday was the youngest of the three: a highly competitive, elite-level teenage gymnast who’s referred to in court documents as Victim D. At first, she thought Dr. Nassar was “a little strange,” but says she knew he was the doctor who could “get me back in the game faster.”

During their first appointment, however, Nassar put his hand inside her shorts, she says. He started touching her inside her “crotch area,” Victim D told the court.

“It felt yucky,” she told the court, saying she cried the entire way home. It was only later, when she started using tampons, that she says she realized Nassar had put his fingers inside her vagina.

That third alleged victim will be cross examined when the hearing resumes May 26th. The prosecutor says as many as four other witnesses may testify as well.

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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