In January of 2018, Larry Nassar was sentenced to 175 years in prison after almost three decades as a clinical physician and doctor for the USA Gymnastics national team.
He pled guilty to both charges of possession of child pornography and, more notably, 10 counts of first degree criminal sexual conduct.
His attorneys at the time included Smith Blythe attorneys Shannon Smith and Molly Blythe. But the notoriety that came from this case, and the vitriol surrounding it, also created grave difficulties for each of them and demanded they examine “what it really means to be a defense attorney.”
On January 22, 2021, podcasters Amanda Knox and Christopher Robinson released a special episode of their podcast Labyrinths where they discussed this infamous case and the impact it had on these two dedicated defense attorneys.
You can listen to the full episode here.
“Accused of Betraying Womankind”
The hosts of Labyrinth describe the episode about Shannon and Molly as “not the story of Nassar and his victims, but the story of two women who defended a man who did terrible things — and in the process, were accused of betraying their sex — as if the only way to be a woman in this case was to want to lynch this man.”
In fact, the case was much more complicated than the girl v. monster narrative the media painted.
Some much overlooked facts included:
The procedure Nassar conducted is supposed to be used as a last resort for girls under 18 and always performed with gloves on; however, Nassar often did the procedure with the patients’ parents in the room, and even allowed it to be for patients to show their own doctor how the procedure was to be done.
Many of the young women sympathized with Nassar, some even writing to him saying that he saved their gymnastic career or bringing him dinner when he was first charged.
Nassar pled guilty and did not contest the charges, and the case did not go to trial. He even agreed to hear all the victim impact statements — more than 150 of them.
Tragically, the most overlooked aspect of the case is that sexual predators are typically not mean, abusive. Instead, they are often people who the victims trust and like. Shannon maintained that every sex abuse case she’s ever had was with people who had close relationships to their victims, which is something that society should take note of.
“Anyone with that type of power over another human being should not relish it”
Perhaps the biggest shock during the case for Shannon and Molly was the behavior of Judge Rosemarie Aquilina of Ingham County. The sentencing hearing was unprecedented, as Judge Aquilina invited more than 150 victims to present their victim impact statements.
While some believe the judge’s decision was a nod to the #MeToo movement, Shannon and Molly contended that the sheer number of these statements was the source of much of the vitriol in the courtroom.
Judge Aquilina had little to no sympathy for the anger aimed at Shannon and Molly, though. In court, when Molly objected to some of the comments made towards them, the judge responded, “Go ahead and say what you have to say. Defense counsel have thick skin.”
This was not only surprising behavior because Judge Aquilinia is a judge, but also because Shannon and Molly were criticized for everything that happened, from taking on Nassar as a client to how they looked. They even received death threats.
The Labyrinth hosts described the atmosphere of the hearing as more like a “daytime talk show” than a courtroom. And rather than remaining impartial, Judge Aquilina almost seemed to relish her power to punish Nassar.
At one point, Judge Aquilina said “Our Constitution does not allow for cruel & unusual punishment. If it did, I might allow someone or many people to do to him what he did to others.”
Furthermore, when she sentenced Nassar, she told him, “Just as it has been 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. I’m giving you 175 years.”
As the Labyrinth hosts put it, “Anyone with that type of power over another human being should not relish that.”
Moving forward as a defense attorney
The stress of the Nassar case and its aftermath was so severe that Shannon had repeated health issues that led to her hospitalization. She and Molly both had to heighten security and discuss with their families whether they wanted to continue their work.
But at the end of the day, they both decided that they would continue.
As Christopher Robinson noted, a defense attorney is a Constitutionally-guaranteed service, and Shannon believes their role is sacred.
In so many of her other cases, people praised Shannon for preventing teens from being put on the sex offender registry for sexting or misunderstandings didn’t send parents to prison for child abuse.
Now, Shannon had to overcome wanting to be liked and accepted by everyone and trust the people who know and love her are all she needs to support her.
But the journey has helped her truly come to terms with what being a defense attorney really means, as well.
”“No matter who the client is or what the case is, it’s really important for defense lawyers to be zealous advocates and work hard for their clients, and try. The day defense lawyers stop doing that is the day they should fold the cards and stop practicing.”
– Shannon Smith