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November 21, 2014

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Court stops Mont. judge from undoing 30-day rape sentence

BILLINGS, Mont. — Montana's Supreme Court on Friday blocked a judge from resentencing a former teacher who got just 30 days in prison for raping a 14-year-old student, a sentence that was widely criticized after the judge said the victim was "older than her chronological age."

Justices said Judge G. Todd Baugh lacks authority to reconsider the sentence he gave former Billings teacher Stacey Rambold, 54.

An appeal of the case already was pending, but Baugh had been seeking to possibly undo the sentence that was panned after his remarks. Baugh also commented that victim Cherice Moralez was "as much in control of the situation as was the defendant."

The girl committed suicide in 2010 while Rambold's trial was pending.

The Attorney General's Office filed an emergency petition to stop the Friday afternoon hearing. Attorneys for the state had warned that holding it as planned could throw the case into disarray and "cause gross injustice to an orderly appeal."

Less than an hour before the hearing was set to begin, the high court ordered Baugh to cancel it and enter a written sentencing for Rambold.

Baugh appeared in his courtroom shortly after the hearing was scheduled to begin. He told a group of reporters and observers that he decided he could not resentence Rambold even before the Supreme Court intervened. The judge also seemed to affix some degree of blame for his original sentence to prosecutors, who he said did not raise objections until after the fact.

Prosecutors contend that state law dictates Rambold serve at least two years in prison. Rambold's defense attorney want the sentence unchanged, but agreed with prosecutors that it can be undone only on appeal.

The Yellowstone County Attorney's office originally called for a 20-year prison sentence for Rambold, with 10 years suspended.

But prosecutors didn't challenge the 30-day sentence as illegal until after-the-fact, when they discovered the mandatory minimum term for sexual intercourse without consent was two years.

The sentence handed down Aug. 26 had been suggested by Rambold's attorney, Jay Lansing.

Lansing said in a court brief filed this week that a new sentence from Baugh would have created "confusion and uncertainty for all parties."

He also said the original sentence — 15 years with all but 31 days suspended and a one-day credit for time served — was allowed under state law.

Baugh has said giving Rambold the minimum mandatory sentence was appropriate due to the circumstances of the case. He described the former teacher with no prior record as a low risk to re-offend after spending more than two years in a sex-offender treatment program.

The defendant entered that program in 2010, after Moralez's suicide left prosecutors without their main witness in the case shortly before it was scheduled to go to trial.

That led to a deferred prosecution deal that allowed Rambold to avoid trial until he violated the terms of the agreement last year, for not reporting that he was in a sexual relationship with a woman and for unauthorized visits with family members' children.

Court documents show there were complaints about Rambold's conduct with female students as early as 2004. Three years before his relationship with Moralez, prosecutors say, "he was warned to stay away from young girls in his class."

No charges were filed, and Lansing has said his client would challenge those accusations.

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