By Laura Zuckerman
(Reuters) - Montana's Supreme Court on Friday barred a trial judge from revising a widely scorned 30-day jail term he imposed on an ex-teacher convicted of raping one of his students, ruling the judge lacked authority to amend the original sentence unilaterally.
Instead, the high court will review the validity of the sentence in a lengthy appeals process initiated earlier this week by the Montana attorney general, which will likely extend well beyond the September 25 release date set for the defendant, Stacey Rambold, prosecutors said.
District Judge G. Todd Baugh drew a torrent of criticism after sentencing the former Billings high school instructor to a month in jail for the 2007 rape of 14-year-old Cherice Moralez, who killed herself three years later before the case could go to trial.
The outcry from women's groups and victim's advocates was inflamed all the more by remarks from the judge during the sentencing hearing suggesting the victim was partly to blame. He said the girl had seemed older than her years and was "probably as much in control of the situation" as her teacher.
The episode sparked demonstrations outside the judge's courtroom office last week and calls for his resignation.
Montana Attorney General Tim Fox asked the Supreme Court on Wednesday to overturn the sentence as too lenient, arguing that the jail term imposed by the judge fell fall short of the mandatory minimum penalty of two years in prison.
Baugh has since apologized for his remarks and acknowledged that he likely ran afoul of state sentencing laws. He then set a hearing for Friday to consider amending Rambold's sentence.
But the attorney general challenged that move as outside Baugh's legal authority, asserting that only the state or the defendant could appeal a prison term on grounds that it was illegally rendered.
The state's Supreme Court justices agreed on Friday, ruling 4-2 that Baugh could not alter the sentence on his own and ordered the planned hearing halted.
"We conclude that the stated intent of the District Court (Baugh) to alter the initially imposed oral sentence in today's scheduled hearing is unlawful and that the proceeding should be arrested," the court said.
The high court did not comment on the validity of the sentence itself, an issue the justices will take up separately under appeal from the attorney general.
'LAWFUL AND APPROPRIATE SENTENCE'
The months-long appeals process spelled out under state law is certain to run far past Rambold's 30-day jail term. He is likely to be placed on supervised probation by the state Department of Corrections when he is released, Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito said.
Rambold's lawyer, Jay Lansing, argued in court documents filed on Thursday that the judge gave his client a "lawful and appropriate sentence" that should remain unchanged.
Rambold, 54, was charged in 2008 with three counts of sexual intercourse without consent, the equivalent of a rape charge in Montana, linked to Moralez, who had been 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.
The death led prosecutors later that year to strike a deal in which Rambold admitted to a single count of rape in exchange for a three-year postponement of the case and dismissal if he completed sex-offender treatment.
Prosecutors reinstated the case after being notified last year 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.
In April, Rambold pleaded guilty to a single count of rape stemming from the 2007 assault in his home.
Baugh did not respond to requests for comment.
(Editing by Steve Gorman and Peter Cooney)