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The Montana attorney general’s office on Friday asked the state Supreme Court to throw out a 30-day sentence given to a teacher who raped a 14-year-old girl, saying the punishment was illegally lenient.
The state formally filed its arguments in the appeal of the highly criticized sentence for Stacey Rambold, who was released from Montana State Prison in September.
District Judge G. Todd Baugh sparked outrage when he commented in August that victim Cherice Moralez was “older than her chronological age.” Moralez killed herself before the case went to trial.
The judge later apologized and said his comments were based on videotaped interviews with Moralez that have not been publicly released.
The state argues the child was not legally capable of consent and that the judge’s sentence was illegal.
The brief argues the minimum legal sentence would have been two years in prison. But prosecutors said they still believe a sentence of 20 years in prison, with 10 years suspended, would be appropriate.
Baugh relied on a different section of the same law cited by prosecutors when he gave the defendant 15 years with all but 31 days suspended and a one-day credit for time served.
Rambold’s attorney, Jay Lansing, has not responded to repeated requests for comment on the case. His office said Wednesday that he had no plans to do so.
The attorney general’s office said Rambold’s sentence should be vacated and remanded for sentencing.
Prosecutors said that “there is no legitimate hypothetical that allows blame to be placed on a 14-year-old student who has been victimized by her 47-year-old teacher.”
Recently, several advocacy groups asked the Supreme Court to be allowed to file supporting arguments in the appeal. They argued they can provide expertise in legal and social advocacy for women’s rights.
The judge’s statements reflected “stereotypical, prejudicial, and generally false beliefs regarding sexual assault,” the groups say.
Rambold has registered as a level 1 sex offender, meaning he’s considered a low risk to reoffend. He will remain on probation through 2028 unless the original sentence is overruled.
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW. And a caution, our next conversation might not be appropriate for everyone. It has to do with that controversial case in Montana where a high school teacher served 30 days for raping a 14-year-old student. The Montana attorney general's office is formally filing an appeal, asking that state's highest court to resentence the teacher.
The victim, Cherice Moralez, committed suicide in 2010. The teacher, Stacey Rambold, 47 at the time of the charges, was initially free on an agreement that he attend a sex offender's treatment program. When he was finally sentenced this past August, Judge G. Todd Baugh outraged people by saying the teacher had suffered enough and that the victim was more mature than she seemed.
The state is now saying that since the child was not legally capable of consent, the judge's sentence was illegal. Greg Tuttle of KTVQ TV in Billings, Montana, joins us. And Greg, remind us, Stacey Rambold was one of Cherice Moralez' high school teachers, in 2008 charged with three counts of sexual intercourse without consent for an ongoing sexual relationship with her.
Who first brought charges? What happened here?
GREG TUTTLE: Stacey Rambold was a business and technology teacher at a high school where Cherice attended, and they had an ongoing relationship that first came to light in the spring of 2008 when Cherice reported to a church counselor what was going on between them. And then the church counselor brought it to the attention of Cherice's mother, Auliea Hanlon, and Mrs. Hanlon then reported it immediately to the police. The investigation started right then, and Mr. Rambold was placed on leave by the school district.
YOUNG: And we're reading in the Billings Gazette, where you once worked, that this teacher, Rambold, had been given a warning about inappropriate behavior four years before his relationship with Cherice even started. He was on the school's radar.
TUTTLE: Well, he was. In 2004 he was told to watch his behavior with female students, and they apparently agreed to let him continue to teach with a warning.
YOUNG: Well, the prosecution wanted 20 years with 10 suspended. The judge gave him 15 years with all but about 30 days suspended. The sentencing was met with outrage. And then there were the judge's comments. Tell us more about the things the judge said.
TUTTLE: At the sentencing, Judge Baugh was explaining his reasoning for the sentence that he imposed. And one of the things he said was that he had viewed the taped video statements that Cherice had made during the investigation. Those videotapes have not been made public and probably won't be. But in his review of those tapes, he believed that she came across as, as he put it, much older than her chronological age and that she had as much a role in the relationship as her much older teacher.
YOUNG: Well, what's the legal standing there? No matter how mature a 14-year-old is, what is the law about whether or not they can consent to relations with a 47-year-old man?
TUTTLE: You're correct, Robin. The problem with those statements is that they are not appropriate. And the law recognizes that in the state of Montana. The age of consent in Montana is 16 years. Under the statute for this offense, sexual intercourse without consent, there is a provision that if the victim is 16 years or younger, and the defendant is four years older or greater than the victim, then there is a mandatory minimum.
That's what got lost in the sentencing hearing and now is the subject of the appeal by the state attorney general's office.
YOUNG: Well, let's just stay with the appeal because you've just explained how the law should work. The state attorney general's office is saying that Judge Baugh ignored these mandatory minimum sentences. So what happens now? You can't be tried twice for the same crime; that's double jeopardy. Can you be sentenced twice for the same crime?
TUTTLE: Yes, that is the argument being made by the state attorney general's office, is that the sentence imposed by Judge Baugh is an illegal sentence, or an inappropriate sentence under the law, and they are asking that the Supreme Court order the case remanded to district court for a resentencing. And they're arguing that the proper sentence should be mandatory minimum of four years in prison.
YOUNG: And again, when you say supreme court, you're referring to the Montana State Supreme Court. They are taking this case up. So we will see how that plays out. But meanwhile, more about just the debris left by this judge's comments in this case. He spoke to you, for instance, when you were a reporter at the Billings Gazette and tried to apologize for and explain some of his comments.
But it seemed like he dug himself even deeper. He said, for instance, things like I can see people are upset because they think it's 30 days for a rape. I'd be upset, too. But then he said I think people have in mind that this was some violent, forcible, horrible rape, not seeming to understand that a 14-year-old in a relation with a 47-year-old is seen by most people as rape.
TUTTLE: You know, you're correct, Robin, and I think that's unfortunately where his thoughts went off the rail about this case. In reviewing all the facts, as a good judge does prior to sentencing, he believed that there were some mitigating factors involved, and in his mind those factors led him to impose the sentence he did. Unfortunately, it appears that it was not proper or legal.
I think he was genuinely distressed over the reaction he was hearing about the statements that he made. And he realized that the statements were offensive. I also believe that he felt that he imposed the proper sentence, that he was standing by and explaining why he imposed the sentence he did. And I think his explanation fell short in a lot of people's minds.
YOUNG: Yeah. He also tried to change his sentence, but the state supreme court said he couldn't. Why?
TUTTLE: He tried to hold another sentencing hearing after recognizing that the sentence he imposed may have been illegal or improper. Unfortunately at that point, he had already lost jurisdiction in the case.
YOUNG: Well, one of the people who definitely thinks this was a case of rape is Cherice's mother. She said Rambold was a known predator, known to the school. He groomed his victim. But tough question: In charging him, this brought attention to what had been happening. Cherice's mother says she was shunned by kids at school and took her own life, killed herself because of that.
Tremendously sad, that the people who wanted to protect her may have ended up horribly inadvertently endangering her. Is there some thinking that young people in this situation, you know, preyed upon by older people, should get some more protection?
TUTTLE: The issue of what the school district did or didn't do is a lingering question. There is some resolution because there was a civil case resolved. The Hanlon family received a settlement of about $91,000 from the school district for a wrongful death case. That case never went to trial. It was settled out of court.
But, yes, the fact that Mr. Rambold was a teacher in a position of trust with a young student is I think what makes this story so horrible for many of us.
YOUNG: Well, and again, once that young girl came forward, she was ostracized.
TUTTLE: Certainly the publicity did not help. It's hard to know all of what was going on in her mind, and it's very sad that she felt the only way out was to take her own life.
YOUNG: Yeah. Greg Tuttle of KTVQ in Billings, Montana, on the case there has continued to roil for a while now. Greg, thanks so much.
TUTTLE: Thank you, Robin.
YOUNG: A story, we'll continue to follow it as the Montana State Supreme Court takes up that case. You're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.