The Montana Supreme Court overturned on Wednesday a one-month prison sentence given to a former teacher for the rape of a 14-year-old student, a penalty that sparked outrage and drew criticism from women's groups as too lenient.
Montana district Judge G. Todd Baugh drew fierce public criticism last year when he sentenced the teacher, Stacey Rambold, to just a month in prison for the 2007 sexual assault of his student, Cherice Moralez, who later killed herself.
Baugh fueled the public outrage by saying during Rambold's sentencing hearing that the teenager seemed older than her years and was "probably as much in control of the situation" as the Billings high school teacher.
On Wednesday, the high court ordered the case assigned to a different judge for re-sentencing as it ruled the sentence - technically 15 years in prison with all but 31 days suspended and credit for one day served - was too lenient.
The court noted that state law requires at least a four-year sentence for a defendant guilty of raping a victim under age 16, and no more than two years of that can be suspended.
"The district court lacked authority to suspend all but 31 days of Rambold's sentence, and its judgment is therefore reversed," Justice Michael Wheat said in the opinion, joined by five other justices.
Rambold was charged in 2008 with three counts of sexual intercourse without consent, stemming from an assault of Moralez in his home. But the teen killed herself in 2010 before the case could go to trial, crippling a prosecution that hinged on her testimony.
In a plea deal that year, Rambold admitted to a single count of sexual intercourse without consent, and prosecutors agreed to postpone the case and dismiss it if he completed sex offender treatment.
The case was reinstated after Rambold was dismissed from a treatment program for violating its rules, and prosecutors sought a 20-year prison term with half of it suspended.
The Montana Judicial Standards Commission had recommended the state Supreme Court discipline Judge Baugh, who became the target of a campaign to unseat him. The high court's opinion said that decision would come later.
Baugh, who did not immediately respond to a request for comment, plans to retire at the end of this year.
Cherice Moralez' mother, Auliea Hanlon, said in a statement issued through her attorney the decision restored her family's faith in the justice system.
"We have appreciated the overwhelming support we have received in this difficult time, and we are hopeful that our supporters will turn their efforts toward working together to keep our children safe from sexual predators," Moralez said.
When Baugh delivered the original sentence Aug. 26 , he said the victim was “older than her chronological age” and “as much in control of the situation” as Rambold, who was in his late-40s at the time.
Baugh apologized last week for his comments about the victim in a letter to the editor of the Billings Gazette.While this case has drawn wide attention, it’s fairly typical for victim blaming and other “minimizing of sexual assault cases” to occur, particularly in situations that involve teachers and students or that don’t fit traditional notions about rape, says Jennifer Long, director of AEquitas: The Prosecutors’ Resource on Violence Against Women, in Washington.
“Adolescent victims are consistently blamed for either seducing their rapist or for some other behaviors.”Members of the public have stepped up to protest in previous cases, such as the teen rapes in Steubenville, Ohio, and “to educate their own community and beyond about the importance of not victim-blaming,” Ms. Long says, “but it seems that we are still stuck in this cycle … where [some of] the very people who should know this information – judges, prosecutors, and other professionals – still believe in the myths and still engage in very dangerous practices.”
(Reporting by Laura Zuckerman in Salmon, Idaho, Writing by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Grant McCool and Cynthia Osterman)