Should Montana justice be impeached for sentencing on incest case?

Judge John McKeon is a month away from retirement, but critics say that his decision to give a man convicted of raping his 12-year-old daughter just 60 days in jail is grounds for impeachment. 

Teresa Getten/Havre Daily News via AP
In this undated photo, Montana state District Judge John McKeon is interviewed in his courtroom in Malta, Mont. McKeon has announced plans to retire in November, 2016, after getting national attention for sentencing a man who pleaded guilty to raping his 12-year-old daughter to 60 days in jail and suspending a 30-year prison sentence.

A Montana judge’s decision to hand down a lenient sentence to a man who repeatedly raped his 12-year-old daughter has come under fire this week, as critics demand that the judge be removed from the bench.

Valley County District Judge John McKeon gave a mere 60-day sentence in the case, rejecting a far longer 25-year sentence recommended by prosecutors. Outraged members of the community are now petitioning for McKeon’s removal, more than a month before he is due to retire. McKeon’s decision comes as communities around the country have been questioning lenient sentences for sex abuse cases.

McKeon stands by his sentence, however, saying that the punishment recommended by the state, a 100-year sentence with 75 years suspended, did not fit the crime.

"The sentence may not be a popular decision by certain members of the general public,” McKeon said in a statement, “but it is a just and proper decision given the record before the court and the law the court is sworn to uphold.”

Critics also say that this case is evidence that Montana’s sex abuse law must be tightened.

First enacted in 2009, as many states enacted mandatory prison terms for individuals convicted of child sex abuse, the law requires a minimum sentence of 25 years for individuals convicted of rape, incest, or sexual abuse of a child age 12 or younger.

In Montana, unlike some states, judges can assign shorter sentences if a court evaluator decides that an offender can be better rehabilitated outside of prison. In this case, the unnamed man’s wife and mother both requested leniency in the case. McKeon determined that psychiatric treatment could better benefit the defendant’s rehabilitation.

Instead of 25 years, the father of three was assigned a 30-year suspended sentence, with just 60 days spent in jail. He must also register as a sex offender.

Despite McKeon’s claims that the sentence reflects the crime, many say that the sentence is far from adequate. More than 80,000 people have since signed a petition for McKeon’s impeachment on change.org.

“The victim only had the justice system on her side, and it failed her,” wrote the individual who created the petition for McKeon’s removal. “Judge McKeon failed her. She deserves justice, and together we can help be her voice.”

The outcry against McKeon’s leniency is part of a growing movement of protest against the legal system’s treatment of sexual abuse cases.

In one recent case, a different Montana judge handed down a 30-day sentence to a school teacher who raped a 14-year-old student, saying that the girl was “as much in control of the situation.”

A thousand miles away in California, another judge sentenced a 20-year-old man to 10 years in prison for raping a toddler, although prosecutors recommended 25 years to life.

Critics of McKeon’s decision and those of other judges say that enough is enough.

“It is time to start punishing the judges who let these monsters walk our streets,” wrote Justice4Montana, the group behind the petition.

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