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Montana appeals 30-day rape sentence for former teacher

By Laura Zuckerman

(Reuters) - The Montana attorney general on Wednesday said the one-month jail term given an ex-teacher for raping a high school student who later killed herself fell far short of the mandatory minimum penalty and asked the state Supreme Court to overturn it.

District Judge G. Todd Baugh drew a torrent of ridicule after sentencing former Billings public school instructor Stacey Rambold last week to 30 days in jail for the 2007 rape of 14-year-old Cherice Moralez at his home.

The surprisingly lenient punishment, coupled with the judge's remarks that the girl seemed older than her years and was "probably as much in control of the situation" as her teacher, has sparked outrage among women's rights groups and victims' advocates.

Hundreds demonstrated outside Baugh's offices last week, calling for his resignation as national media attention on the case intensified.

The prosecutor, meanwhile, has said the judge appeared to have misapplied Montana's sentencing guidelines, arguing that Rambold should probably have received a minimum of two years in prison for his crime.

The judge's apology for his comments and the state's request to impose a longer sentence has done little to quiet Baugh's critics, who say his remarks could discourage other sexual violence victims from coming forward for fear of mistreatment by the criminal justice system.

"He needs to be removed from the bench. We will fight to the very end," said Marian Bradley, president of the Montana chapter of the National Organization for Women.

Baugh on Tuesday set a hearing for Friday to examine the possibility of amending the sentence, acknowledging that he likely ran afoul of the law when he suspended almost all of a 15-year sentence rather than imposing at least the mandatory minimum penalty of two years in prison.

Rambold's actual sentence amounted to 31 days minus one day's credit for time already served.

PROCEDURAL QUANDARY

But Montana Attorney General Tim Fox said on Wednesday that Baugh lacked authority to revise the jail term under state statutes that allow only the state or the defendant to appeal a prison sentence they believe is illegal.

Fox said the state was "working diligently to ensure that justice is being served" by asking the state Supreme Court to overturn the Rambold's sentence.

Also on Wednesday, Yellowstone County prosecutors filed a motion seeking to cancel Baugh's planned re-sentencing hearing on Friday and halt all further proceedings in the matter until Montana's high court renders a decision.

Rambold in 2008 was originally charged with three counts of raping Moralez, a student in a technology class he taught. He was subsequently suspended from his teaching post and later surrendered his teaching certificate.

But Moralez killed herself in 2010 before the case went to trial, crippling the prosecution's case.

County attorneys instead offered Rambold a plea in which he admitted to one count of rape, and prosecutors agreed to postpone the case for three years and to dismiss it entirely if he completed a sex-offender treatment program.

They reinstated the case after Rambold was dismissed from the program prematurely, in part for having unsupervised contact with minors. He ended up pleading guilty in April to a single count of rape, a crime prosecutors said called for a 20-year jail term, with half of that suspended.

The victim's mother, Auliea Hanlon, has said that Rambold's actions were a "major factor" in the suicide of her daughter, who she said "was being blamed and ostracized and ridiculed by her peers" after the rape allegations surfaced.

Attempts to contact Baugh were unsuccessful. Rambold's attorney, Jay Lansing, declined to comment.

(Reporting by Laura Zuckerman in Idaho; Editing by Steve Gorman and Lisa Shumaker)

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