Montana judge behind lenient rape sentence sparks new outrage

The Montana judge urged to resign after imposing a 30-day prison sentence for the rape of a 14-year-old planned a re-sentencing hearing for Friday afternoon, but it was blocked by the state supreme court.

Larry Mayer/Billings Gazette/AP
This undated photo shows District Judge G. Todd Baugh presiding at a hearing in Great Falls, Mont. Baugh has planned a resentencing hearing for Friday afternoon, saying his original 30-day prison sentence of teacher Stacey Rambold for raping a 14-year-old was incorrect.

[Updated Friday 3:40 EDT.]

A Montana judge has sparked outrage once again – this time for what attorneys on both sides say was an improper attempt to backtrack on a lenient rape sentence, one that led to pressure from around the world for the judge to resign.

District Judge G. Todd Baugh planned a resentencing hearing for Friday afternoon, saying his original 30-day prison sentence of teacher Stacey Rambold for raping a 14-year-old was incorrect and the case instead requires a minimum of two years. (Technically the sentence was for 15 years, suspended except for 31 days, with credit for one day served.)

The Montana Attorney General’s office sought to block the hearing, saying only the Montana Supreme Court has the authority to fix sentencing mistakes and the hearing would interfere with the appeal the office is filing. Defense attorney Jay Lansing agreed in a court briefing that a Friday hearing by Baugh would create confusion.

The high court on Friday afternoon blocked the hearing and ordered Judge Baugh to enter a written sentencing for Mr. Rambold. Baugh never signed a written sentencing order after making his oral pronouncement in the case.

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’s comments brought protesters out onto the streets in Billings by the hundreds and have led to more than 56,000 signatures online from people calling for his resignation.

Baugh apologized last week for his comments about the victim in a letter to the editor of the Billings Gazette.

His attempt to hold a hearing Friday may have been a way “to have a do-over, recognizing that he did something wrong … but I think the demand for him to resign was the correct demand,” says Sheena Rice, who helped plan the rally last week as a senior organizer at the Montana Organizing Project. At that rally people called not only for the judge to step down, but also for a legal review of his other rape trials and for education in the legal community about the damaging effects of victim-blaming language in rape cases.

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.”

In Montana, the age of consent is 16. Rambold was charged in 2008 with three counts of intercourse without consent (commonly known elsewhere as statutory rape) for actions that started when Cherice Morales was 14. 

When Cherice was 16 and the case was still pending, she killed herself. Prosecutors deferred trial at that point based on conditions such as Rambold entering a treatment program and not having unauthorized conduct with children. They went forward with prosecution after he violated those terms. Rambold pleaded guilty to one count in April.

Baugh’s failed attempt to hold a new hearing Friday could make it easier to demand that he resign or be removed, says Marian Bradley, president of the Montana chapter of the National Organization for Women.

Ms. Bradley is also helping to organize a Justice4Cherice campaign, which includes a Facebook page and a way for people to file formal complaints with the Montana Judicial Standards Commission. She says hundreds of such complaints are in the works and eventually she expects thousands; because a complaint requires a notarized signature, it’s not as easy as signing a petition.

Baugh would be up for reelection in 2014. The Judicial Standards Commission can recommend to the state supreme court that he be removed.

“What I’m hearing from people throughout the world … is that they are outraged at the victim-blaming,” Bradley says. It’s like they’ve heard one too many times comments such as the controversial statements by former Missouri Rep. Todd Akin about “legitimate rape.”

“People are done,” she says. “Men and women, young and old, people of all races and religions, they’re stepping up.”

After the rally last week, Bradley says, Cherice’s mother told her that she had felt alone when Baugh handed down the original sentence, but that when people in the community called for change, it helped restore her faith in people.

It’s not the first time Montana has seen controversy over rape trials. In the spring, the University of Montana at Missoula entered into agreements with the US Departments of Education and Justice stemming from complaints about how campus sexual assaults and harassment were handled over a period of several years.

To help promote a better understanding of best practices in handling sexual assault cases, organizers such as Ms. Rice in Billings are beginning a dialogue in the legal community about possibly requiring members of the Montana bar to have continuing education that includes the issue of victim-blaming language.

Material from Associated Press was used in this report.

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