BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — A Montana judge under fire for his comments about a 14-year-old victim in a schoolhouse rape case has ordered a new sentencing hearing for the former teacher who received just 30 days in prison for the crime.
In setting the hearing for Friday afternoon, District Judge G. Todd Baugh said Tuesday that state law appears to require a two-year mandatory minimum prison term for Stacey Rambold, 54, of Billings.
Rambold last week was sentenced to 15 years with all but 31 days suspended and a one-day credit given for time-served. He began serving his monthlong term last week at the state prison in Deer Lodge.
"In the Court's opinion, imposing a sentence which suspends more than the mandatory minimum would be an illegal sentence," Baugh wrote.
But in a strange twist, Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito said Baugh may lack authority to impose a longer sentence at this point. That's because state law says an illegal sentence must be handled through the appeal process.
The judge has faced widespread condemnation from women's rights activists, elected officials and others for the light sentence and for saying Rambold's 14-year-old victim, Cherise Moralez, was "older than her chronological age" and asserting that she had some control over her months-long relationship with Rambold.
The judge later apologized for his comments, although activists who have called for him to resign said an apology is not enough.
Moralez killed herself before Rambold's case came to trial. That left prosecutors without their main witness and led them to strike a deal with Rambold that allowed him to avoid prison until he violated the terms of his court-ordered release.
Court records show the sentence Baugh handed down was in line with what Rambold had requested.
Prosecutors, who had sought 20 years prison with 10 years suspended, already were considering an appeal, citing the two-year minimum requirement.
Twito said he planned to be in Baugh's courtroom Friday but was unsure how the hearing might play out given that state law says illegal sentences must be addressed through an appeal.
"I've done this a long time and I'm in an area I have not been in before," said Twito, now in his 16th year as a prosecutor.
If his reading of the law stands up, that could give the defendant the advantage in Friday's hearing.
Twito said members of his office, along with Rambold's defense attorney, Jay Lansing, met informally with Baugh last week to discuss the case.
Baugh said in Tuesday's order that the defendant's presentencing memorandum claimed the minimum mandatory for sexual intercourse without consent was 30 days, and the state did not object until after the sentence was handed down.
Lansing could not be immediately reached for comment Tuesday.
Twito said his office will continue to pursue a possible appeal if the sentence remains unchanged. A final decision would be made in conjunction with the appellate division of the Montana attorney general's office.
Hundreds of protesters rallied outside the Yellowstone County Court House last week to call for Baugh's resignation. News of Friday's hearing in the case did little to sway those critics.
"The judge cannot take back the words he said when he blamed the victim. As far as we're concerned, Judge Baugh has lost the trust of this community," said Eran Thompson with Not in Our Town, a Billings group that promotes diversity and works against hate crimes.
The 71-year-old judge was first elected to the bench in 1984 and has been re-elected every six years since without an opponent. He's up for re-election in 2014.
Baugh said in response to the criticism that Rambold's sentence was based on the defendant's violation of an earlier deal he made with prosecutors, rather than the original crime. He also claimed that his remarks about Moralez were "irrelevant" and did not factor into his sentence.