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Judge to decide if Larry Nassar can get a fair trial in his home county

Nassar in court.
Kate Wells
Michigan Radio
Larry Nassar's case will be back in court Friday, where his attorneys will argue he can't get a fair trial in Ingham County

“Bubba will be his new bed partner.”

“Special circle of hell waiting for him.”

Those are just a couple of the Facebook comments Larry Nassar’s attorneys submitted to Ingham County Circuit Judge Rosemarie Aquilina last month, as part of their bid to move his upcoming trial out of the county.

It’s evidence, they argue, that after all the “inflammatory” media coverage of Nassar’s alleged sexual assaults, he can’t get a fair trial in the county where he’s lived and practiced for years.

“These people could be the casual observer – or a potential juror,” the defense argues in a motion filed ahead of Friday’s hearing. “Those comments clearly indicate a bias towards Defendant Nassar’s guilt and even suggest his appropriate punishments which includes extreme physical harm,” the defense’s motion reads.

Nasssar is a former doctor for the U.S. Olympic women’s gymnastics team, as well as a former professor, team doctor, and clinician at Michigan State University until last year.

He was fired after one former gymnast, Rachael Denhollander,publicly accused Nassarof sexually abusing her when she was his teenage patient. Since then, police have received more than 120 similar complaints, and the case has been national news, especially as former Olympians keep coming forward with allegations of their own.

This summer, Nassar pleaded guiltyto child pornography possession, and faces sentencing in December.

In Ingham County, he’s accused of sexually abusing seven women and girls when they were teens and pre-teens. If convicted, he’s facing up to life in prison.  And prosecutors from the Michigan Attorney General’s office say the trial should stay put.

Their argument: Social media comments don’t prove Ingham County is an “immutably tainted community.” Instead, they argue in a counter motion, “these proofs show only that some individuals, whose locations are unknown, have, at some point in the last year, stated an opinion about the defendant outside the courtroom.”

Plus, prosecutors say, if courts have to move cases every time people make nasty comments online, the “criminal justice system would find cases endlessly bouncing about the state.”

Can Nassar’s child pornography possession be used as evidence?

In July, Nassar struck a plea dealwith the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Michigan: He would plead guilty to possessing “thousands of images and videos of child pornography,” and trying to hide that evidence.

In exchange, the U.S. Attorney’s office would offer the judge an “advisory sentencing range” of 22-27 years.  

Meanwhile, in Ingham County, both prosecutors and Nassar’s defense team asked the Circuit Court judge to push the sexual assault trial back until after federal sentencing. But Judge Aquilina denied that motion.

Now, prosecutors want Nassar’s federal child porn plea entered as evidence, arguing it’s further proof of his sexual interest in young girls.

But defense attorneys Shannon Smith and Matt Newburg say it’s not relevant. No one’s accusing Nassar of making child porn or showing it to kids, they argue in another motion.

“…The possession of child pornography does not in itself suggest a person will sexually assault others,” the defense’s motion reads. “This type of thinking is a stretch … it would be like suggesting that adult men who possess adult pornography would be more likely to sexually assault others.” 

Furthermore, the defense says bringing the child pornography plea into this trial, would be “so inflammatory as to taint the jury’s ability to be fair…”

This hearing on Friday is potentially a big deal

As if the child porn and the venue change motions weren’t enough, a slew of other filings are asking the judge to consider:

  1.  The defense’s motion to push back the trial, and set a firm cutoff date for discovery. They claim they’re being flooded with “last-minute discovery dumps” from the prosecution, including nearly 60,000 pages of discovery from the MSU Police Department;
  2. The defense’s motion to hold Attorney General Bill Schuette in contempt of court for making statements that “unfairly prejudiced” potential jurors against Nassar, and for failing to enforce the gag order previously issued in this case;
  3. The defense’s motion to “pierce the rape shield” and use the fact that one of Nassar’s alleged victims was sexually abused before encountering Nassar. “This information is necessary so that the jury will see the root of [the alleged victim’s] psychological state…”
  4. The prosecution’s motion to allow six additional witnesses to testify that Nassar abused them as well. Those witnesses include at least three former Olympic gymnasts. Their testimony will show Nassar “had a common scheme or plan” of sexually assaulting young female gymnasts under the guise of medical treatment, according to the prosecution.  

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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