'Barracuda Aquilina'

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Judge in MSU’s?Nassar case was Michigan’s first female Army JAG officer

By Kurt Anthony Krug
Legal News

Ingham County Circuit Judge Rosemarie E. Aquilina rose to prominence this year presiding over the trial of disgraced doctor Larry Nassar.

She allowed more than 160 young women, a.k.a. “sister survivors,” who were molested by Nassar – a former USA Gymnastics national team doctor and an osteopathic physician at Michigan State University – under the pretense that he was performing a medical procedure, to have their voices heard in her courtroom over the course of seven days. Since then, Aquilina has emerged as a fierce advocate for victims’ rights and became a hero to many when she sentenced Nassar to up to 175 years in prison, telling him “I just signed your death warrant.”

Since Nassar is appealing his conviction, Aquilina cannot comment on this case, which received international media attention. As a result, MSU President Lou Anna K. Simon resigned January 24, and MSU announced it will pay $500 million in settlement money to 332 of Nassar’s victims.

Aquilina also doesn’t want to draw attention away from the young women who confronted Nassar in her courtroom, calling them the “true heroes.”

The judge has other things to talk about.

Her father and her uncle served in the military. She followed in their footsteps, becoming the first female member of the Judge Advocate General Corps in the state, serving 20 years in the Michigan Army National Guard. During her time in the JAG Corps, she earned the nickname “Barracuda Aquilina.” During her military career, she received a commendation medal for Operation: Desert Storm and the Army Achievement Medal.

“I was raised on duty, honor, country, and family. I quickly became the most requested (female JAG officer) as I not only did a great job, but was deemed the only minority,” said Aquilina, the daughter of a Maltese father and a German mother who was born in Germany. “One of the commanders gave me the ‘barracuda’ nickname because I won so often, and commanders hated to be under my cross-examination at trial.”

Aquilina is an adjunct law professor at the MSU College of Law and Western Michigan University Cooley Law School in Lansing. She teaches classes in criminal and civil trial practice, trial practicum, criminal law, and criminal procedure. On May 11, she delivered the address at the MSU College of Law commencement ceremony. She was the first female faculty member to address the spring graduating class.

In her speech, Aquilina told the graduates that they have life-altering power as an attorney. Their role now changes from student to advocate one client at a time, one case at a time. She also told them professionalism always prevails because it ensures that the voice of their client is louder and stronger, not weaker.

“I have never sought to be the loudest voice – I sought to be the right voice. I have never sought popularity – I have sought justice. I have never played follow the leader – I have chosen to be the leader. I have (turned) a deaf ear to ‘It’s always been done this way’ – I listen and ensure that I am part of change,” she said in her address.

Aquilina was a 55th District Court and Sobriety Court judge for four years. She is currently in her 10th year as a 30th Circuit Court judge.

“I always intended that if I was going to go to law school, my goal would be to become a judge,” she said. “I didn’t feel ready for many years. Then I had a very bad child abuse case, and I could not convince my client not to beat her teenager with a belt. In that moment, I decided it was time to be the voice from the bench.”

Aquilina immigrated to Detroit at a very young age. She became a naturalized American citizen at age 12. She wanted to be a writer for a living ever since she was a toddler when she’d read to her younger brother Joe. “Joe was so happy and his face lit up so much, I decided that was what I wanted to do – tell stories,” she recalled.

However, her father, a physician, told her that wanting to be a writer was like saying “I want to be an actress,” worrying that she could not support herself.

“I obtained my teaching degree and decided to go to law school because most doctors dislike lawyers, and I was not happy I was not ‘allowed’ to be what I really wanted to be,” said Aquilina, who earned her undergraduate degree in journalism and English from MSU and her juris doctor from Cooley. “In the end, law was a great fit and also gave me a voice as a writer.”

Her second novel “Triple Cross Killer,”  was released in late 2017. Taking place in Detroit and Sarasota, Fla., Det. David Maxwell and Det. Jaq McSween team up with Sarasota cop Abel Medoza and his partner Rabbit to find a serial killer who uses the letters children write to Santa Claus to strike at his victims. She also introduces a nurse named Rita Rose, who has a strong supporting role. This is the first novel in Aquilina’s “State Detective Special Forces” series.

 “My oldest son was helping his sister with letters to Santa and asked me: ‘What happens if Santa letters get into the wrong hands?’” said Aquilina. “I sat down and instantly wrote the first few chapters. I saw the book in my head and it was a great adventure.”

She spoke about the inspiration behind creating for McSween and Maxwell from actual detectives who have testified in her courtroom. 

“They are all their own characters, especially those who go undercover. They all have great stories behind the scenes as well. They have dangerous jobs and don’t get enough pay or credit for risking their lives every day,” said Aquilina. “(Rita) is a combination of a great woman I have known mixed with battered women I have heard testify and have known. Thankfully, many have the strength to ultimately save themselves. Rita finds that she is and has her own special strength, which is a powerful statement all on its own.”

Her second book in this series “Circumstantial Justice” is slated to come out later this year. Aquilina’s also working on a cozy mystery series called “All Rise” about a disgruntled judge who leaves the bench to open a hair salon. Her first book “Fear No Evil” came out in 2003. She explained why there was a 14-year gap between her first and second novels.

“There are many years between published books,” she clarified. “I have written several books that have not been published, but may be in the future.”

Aquilina has fond memories of a recent  book signing at Barnes & Noble in Lansing.

“(It was) standing room only. Hundreds of books sold,” she said. “The speaking portion was engaging and the audience could have kept me talking all night. I signed book until 11 p.m. – two hours after the bookstore closed! There were more requests and books sold over the phone that I then had to sign and the bookstore mailed – very exciting!”

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