HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Montana's governor agrees with citizens who are upset that a man was sentenced to 60 days in jail for raping his 12-year-old daughter, but Steve Bullock says his office has no authority to investigate or override the decision.
Bullock sent an email Thursday to constituents who contacted his office about District Judge John McKeon's decision to give the eastern Montana man a 30-year suspended prison sentence.
"As a father of three school age kids, I believe the sentence Judge McKeon imposed is unacceptable," Bullock wrote. "Rape of a child is a horrific crime and when it happens at the hands of a parent, it violates a relationship we expect to be centered on trust and protection."
Court records said the mother walked in on the father raping the child. The Associated Press is not identifying the man to avoid identifying the victim of a sexual assault.
State law calls for a mandatory minimum 25-year sentence for incest if the victim is age 12 or younger. McKeon suspended the man's sentence under an exception that allows for a lesser sentence if a psychosexual evaluation determines treatment "affords a better opportunity for rehabilitation ... and the ultimate protection of the victim and society."
The man also must undergo sex offender treatment and faces many other restrictions.
McKeon's sentencing order notes that Valley County prosecutors didn't challenge the results of the psychosexual evaluation, that the defendant has community support, nobody spoke on behalf of the 12-year-old girl and a presentence investigation did not give a sentencing recommendation or even a typical sentence given for the crime. The order also includes excerpts from letters written by the victim's mother and maternal grandmother arguing in favor of community treatment.
The written sentencing order, issued about two weeks after the man was sentenced, acknowledges the social media backlash that included an online petition calling for McKeon to be impeached.
"The sentence may not be a popular decision by certain members of the general public but it is a just and proper decision given the record before the Court and the law the Court is sworn to uphold," McKeon wrote on Oct. 17.
About a dozen people upset about the lenient sentence contacted the governor's office.
Any complaints about a judge's actions are handled by the Judicial Standards Commission, Bullock noted in his response, and any decision of whether to appeal the case will be made by the county attorney in consultation with the Attorney General's office.
Department of Justice spokesman John Barnes said Friday that Attorney General Tim Fox's office is speaking with the Valley County attorney's office to determine if there are any grounds for appeal.
"While this sentence is obviously reprehensible, no sentence can be appealed by the state unless it violates sentencing laws," Barnes said in a statement, adding that leniency alone is not sufficient grounds for appeal.
The state's Commission on Sentencing has forwarded a bill draft to the legislature calling for the elimination of the sentencing exception used in this case.
"We look forward to working with lawmakers to close this sentencing loophole and prevent this from happening again," Barnes said.
The Judicial Standards Commission cannot comment on whether any complaints have been filed against McKeon until commissioners determine they have merit, said executive secretary Shelly Smith. Commissioners have not forwarded any complaints about McKeon to the Montana Supreme Court, she said.
McKeon earlier announced plans to retire in November after 22 years on the bench.