By Laura Zuckerman
(Reuters) - A prominent women's rights group criticized a Montana judge on Wednesday for handing down only a one-month sentence for a former teacher convicted of raping a 14-year-old student, whom the judge said seemed older than her age.
State District Judge G. Todd Baugh sentenced the teacher to 15 years in jail on Monday, then suspended all but 31 days of that term for the 2007 rape of Cherice Moralez, who killed herself in 2010, legal documents show. He also received credit for one day served.
In sentencing 54-year-old Stacey Rambold, the judge ignored a recommendation by prosecutors for a 20-year term with half of it suspended. Baugh described the girl as a troubled youth who "was probably as much in control of the situation" as was Rambold.
"We think the sentence is a travesty," said Marian Bradley, president of the state chapter of the National Organization for Women, adding that the group was seeking his resignation.
Referring to the judge, she added, "We think the man needs to be quiet before he endangers other women by suggesting they are to blame for being sexually assaulted."
The women's group expected hundreds of people to attend a silent protest near the judge's offices on Thursday afternoon. Meanwhile, an online petition seeking Baugh's ouster had been signed by more than 13,000 people by Wednesday afternoon.
Baugh, who according to court transcripts also said before handing down the sentence that the girl seemed "older than her chronological age," did not immediately respond to several requests for comment.
Rambold was charged by Yellowstone County prosecutors in 2008 with three counts of sexual intercourse without consent, the Montana equivalent of a rape charge, linked to Moralez, a student in a technology class he taught at Senior High School in Billings.
Moralez killed herself in 2010 before the case could go to trial. In an agreement with prosecutors later that year, Rambold admitted to a single count of sexual intercourse without consent and prosecutors agreed to postpone the case for three years and dismiss it entirely if Rambold completed sex offender treatment.
Prosecutors reinstated the case after being notified last year by the treatment center that Rambold, who was suspended in 2008 from his teaching post and later resigned, had been dismissed from the program for violating its rules.
In April, Rambold pleaded guilty to the rape charge stemming from the 2007 assault of Moralez in his Billings home, according to legal documents.
The girl's mother, Auliea Hanlon, had testified prior to sentencing that she wanted him put behind bars, saying she believed Rambold's actions were a "major factor" in her daughter's suicide.
"Cherice has paid for the consequences of his actions. He was on paid leave while she was being blamed and ostracized and ridiculed by her peers," she said. "He was as free as a bird while she was getting threatened and treated like trash every day."
Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito said he and his team of prosecutors were reviewing the sentencing - as they do in all such cases - with an eye toward any procedural or legal errors that might allow an appeal.
He said Hanlon, the girl's mother, was rightfully frustrated: "She is a victim in this as is her poor daughter, who is no longer with us."
(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Ken Wills)