Criminal Justice

Teacher's one-month rape sentence is too short, Montana Supreme Court says in opinion chiding judge

A Montana judge “cast serious doubt on the appearance of justice” when he said a 14-year-old rape victim was “older than her chronological age,” the Montana Supreme Court said Wednesday in a decision vacating a one-month prison term in the case.

The court said the original sentencing judge, G. Todd Baugh, should not handle the resentencing of the defendant, former teacher Stacey Dean Rambold. The law requires offenders to serve at least two years of the four-year minimum sentence, the court said in its opinion (PDF). The Billings Gazette and the New York Times have stories.

In August, Baugh had sentenced Rambold to 15 years in prison, with all but 31 days of the sentence to be suspended, after Rambold’s guilty plea to sexual intercourse without consent. The guilty plea stemmed from Rambold’s multiple instances of sexual activity with the student, who later committed suicide.

A 2010 agreement with prosecutors had allowed Rambold to avoid prosecution if he entered a sexual treatment program and agreed to conditions, but Rambold didn’t fully comply, the court said. Rambold then reached a plea agreement in which the state recommended a sentence of 20 years, with 10 years suspended.

At the August sentencing, Baugh made this statement: “In some respects, the defendant took advantage of a troubled youth. I’ve looked at those interviews. And it’s easy enough to say the defendant should have been aware, should not, obviously, have engaged in the conduct that he did. And it was a troubled youth, but a youth that was probably as much in control of the situation as was the defendant, one that was seemingly, although troubled, older than her chronological age.”

The Montana Supreme Court said that Baugh’s statements “reflected an improper basis for his decision and cast serious doubt on the appearance of justice. The idea that [the youth] could have ‘control’ of the situation is directly at odds with the law, which holds that a youth is incapable of consent and, therefore, lacks any control over the situation whatsoever. That statement also disregards the serious power disparity that exists between an adult teacher and his minor pupil. In addition, there is no basis in the law for the court’s distinction between the victim’s ‘chronological age’ and the court’s perception of her maturity.”

The court said the Judicial Standards Commission had received several complaints about Baugh’s comments and has recommended disciplinary action. “Under these circumstances,” the courts said, “we conclude that reassignment to a new judge is necessary to preserve the appearance of fairness and justice in this matter.”

Prior coverage: “Judge admits violating ethics with remarks about 14-year-old rape victim, but argues against removal” “Top state court tells judge to cancel hearing on 30-day term for ex-teacher who admitted teen rape” “Ex-teacher gets 30 days for rape of girl, 14; judge says she was ‘older than her chronological age’ “

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