BILLINGS, Mont. — When a Billings judge sentenced a former schoolteacher to 30 days in prison for raping a 14-year-old student — declaring her “older than her chronological age” and “as much in control of the situation” as the man who pleaded guilty — it set off a storm of outrage, magnified by heavy coverage on cable news and across social media.
As the condemnation grew, the judge, G. Todd Baugh, apologized, saying his remarks had been demeaning to women.
But when he announced his intention to reconsider the sentence at a hearing Friday, he set off fresh waves of objection, this time from the state’s legal establishment. Lawyers for both sides protested that the judge lacked the authority to correct a sentencing error, and the Montana Supreme Court stepped in Friday and ordered the judge to cancel his resentencing.
An appeal of the case already was pending from prosecutors who contend the former teacher Stacey Rambold, 54, should serve two years, at a minimum. Baugh had sought to undo the sentence on his own after his remarks triggered a public backlash and calls for his resignation.
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The state warned that Baugh’s plans could throw the case into disarray and “cause gross injustice to an orderly appeal.”
Less than an hour before the hearing was to begin, the high court ordered Baugh to cancel it and enter a written sentence for Rambold so the appeal process could proceed. The judge nevertheless showed up at court and faced television cameras and victims’ advocates, saying he would try “to answer some questions that you might have.” After reciting the lengthy legal history of the case, Baugh said the dispute over the sentence he had issued would now be moving on to the Montana Supreme Court.
During his recital, he seemed to affix some blame on prosecutors because they did not immediately raise objections to his actions at the Aug. 26 hearing. He ended with: “That’s about all I got to say. Thank you very much; we’re adjourned.”
Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito said his office had sought 20 years in prison for Rambold, with 10 years suspended.
Baugh did not return phone messages for comment. He is up for re-election next year, and advocates have vowed to challenge him if he chooses to run again.
The outrage swirling across this city finds its roots in the sexual relationship between the 14-year-old, Cherice Moralez, who has since committed suicide, and Rambold, who was a business teacher at Billings Senior High School. It began in October 2007 and lasted about three months.
“He’d wake up in the morning, look at his wife, leave his home and he’d go engage in sexual acts with a minor,” said Shane Colton, a lawyer for Moralez’s mother, Auliea Hanlon.
In 2008, Rambold was charged with three counts of rape. He had resigned from school that year and surrendered his teaching certificate.
In legal documents and interviews with several news outlets, Hanlon said her once-exuberant daughter became emotionally distressed and humiliated as word of the abuse came to light. She was bullied and taunted at school, and fatally shot herself at home in February 2010, about three weeks before her 17th birthday.
Her death changed the trajectory of the case, and in July 2010, lawyers agreed to defer prosecution if Rambold entered a sexual-offender treatment program. But prosecutors renewed their case against him after he was kicked out of the program in November 2012. This year, Rambold pleaded guilty to one count of rape.
Last week, the judge sentenced Rambold to 15 years but suspended all but 30 days. Prosecutors had asked that Rambold serve 10 years behind bars. Rambold will continue to serve out the original sentence while the appeal is pending. That means he will be released from prison next month but remain under probation and have to register as a sex offender.
Activists who pushed for Baugh to resign or be removed from the bench said Friday those efforts would continue. “He took no responsibility, no ownership. He blamed the state, blamed the prosecutor,” said Marian Bradley, president of the Montana National Organization for Women.