By Laura Zuckerman
(Reuters) - A Montana judge acknowledged on Tuesday that the one-month jail term he imposed on an ex-teacher for raping a 14-year-old girl who later killed herself was probably far too lenient than state law allows and set a hearing to review the matter.
District Judge G. Todd Baugh drew a hail of criticism last week from victims' rights advocates, women's groups and local prosecutors when he levied a 15-year suspended sentence that required defendant Stacey Rambold to serve no more than 31 days behind bars.
The outcry was inflamed all the more at Monday's sentencing when the judge described the victim, Cherice Moralez, as a troubled teen who appeared to be more mature than her age and was "probably as much in control of the situation" as the 48-year-old man who raped her.
Rambold, 54, a former high school instructor, pleaded guilty in April to a single count of sexual intercourse without consent - the equivalent of rape in Montana - stemming from his 2007 assault on Moralez at his home in Billings.
But the judge drew nearly as much scorn as the defendant, with calls for his resignation mounting and the case receiving national media attention. Baugh's subsequent apologies did little to quell the uproar, giving way to protests outside his courthouse office last week.
Prosecutors, meanwhile, have said they planned to appeal the sentence, arguing that the judge misapplied Montana's criminal codes and sentencing guidelines.
Baugh said on Tuesday that after reviewing his sentencing decision it appeared that Montana law mandated that Rambold serve a minimum two-year sentence - as asserted by Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito - and the judge set a new hearing for Friday.
"In this court's opinion, imposing a sentence which suspends more than the mandatory minimum would be an illegal sentence," Baugh wrote in his order.
But Twito said on Tuesday the judge may lack discretion to revise the jail term because state law requires sentences deemed illegal to be appealed - either by the state or by the defendant.
"I have to question whether the court has the authority to do this," the prosecutor said. "An illegal sentence must be corrected through the appellate process - and that's what we're pursuing."
Twito said he will argue that point in legal documents to be filed before Friday's hearing.
Rambold had been charged in 2008 with three counts of rape 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, hampering a prosecution that hinged on her testimony. Her mother, Auliea Hanlon, has said Rambold's actions were a "major factor" in her daughter's decision to take her own life.
Rambold agreed with prosecutors later that year to admit guilt to a single count of rape, and prosecutors agreed to postpone the case for three years and dismiss it entirely if Rambold completed a treatment program for sex offenders.
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 surrendered his teaching certificate, had been dismissed from the program for violating its rules.
Marian Bradley, head of the Montana chapter of the National Organization for Women, said the judge's move to possibly revise the sentence is irrelevant.
"This doesn't change anything. The man still needs to be removed from office," she said.
Baugh could not immediately be reached for comment on Tuesday, and Rambold's attorney, Jay Lansing, did not respond to a request for comment late Tuesday afternoon.
(Reporting by Laura Zuckerman in Idaho; Writing by Cynthia Johnston; Editing by Steve Gorman, Andrew Hay and Philip Barbara)