Montana judge says month-long prison term for rape may be too lenient

Laura Zuckerman

By Laura Zuckerman

(Reuters) - A Montana judge who controversially sentenced an ex-teacher to a month in prison for raping a teenage student who later killed herself said on Tuesday his penalty may have been more lenient than allowed by law and called a new hearing.

District Judge G. Todd Baugh faced fierce criticism last week for sentencing former Billings high school teacher Stacey Rambold to 15 years in prison, then suspending all but 31 days of the term for the 2007 rape of 14-year-old Cherice Moralez in his home.

Before handing down the sentence, in remarks he would later apologize for, Baugh described the girl as a troubled youth who seemed older than her age and was "probably as much in control of the situation" as Rambold.

Baugh's comments sparked an outpouring of rage by women's rights activists who protested outside the judge's offices and launched a campaign for his resignation. Prosecutors said they planned to appeal the sentence.

On Tuesday Baugh said he had reviewed his sentencing decision and it appeared Montana law mandated a two-year minimum sentence for the crime. He set a new hearing for Friday.

"In this court's opinion, imposing a sentence which suspends more than the mandatory minimum would be an illegal sentence," Baugh wrote in his order.

Rambold had been charged by Yellowstone County prosecutors in 2008 with three counts of sexual intercourse without consent, the Montana equivalent of rape, linked to Moralez, a student in a technology class he taught at Senior High School in Billings.

Moralez killed herself in 2010 before the case could go to trial, crippling a prosecution case that depended on her testimony.

In an agreement with prosecutors later that year, Rambold admitted to a single count of sexual intercourse without consent and prosecutors agreed to postpone the case for three years and dismiss it entirely if Rambold completed sex offender treatment.

Prosecutors reinstated the case after being notified last year by the treatment center that Rambold, who was suspended in 2008 from his teaching post and later resigned, had been dismissed from the program for violating its rules.

In April, Rambold pleaded guilty to the rape charge stemming from the assault of Moralez in his Billings home, according to legal documents.

(Reporting by Laura Zuckerman in Idaho; Writing by Cynthia Johnston; Editing by Greg McCune and Andrew Hay)