BILLINGS, Mont. — A Montana judge appeared intent on trying to undo his lenient sentence for a teacher who raped a student, even as prosecutors pressed the state Supreme Court today to stop him until their appeal is resolved.
A resentencing hearing was planned later in the day for Stacey Rambold, 54, who pleaded guilty to one count of rape in August.
An emergency petition from the state attorney general’s office to block the resentencing was pending before the state Supreme Court after being filed at close of business Thursday.
State attorneys said holding the hearing as planned would “cause a gross injustice to an orderly appeal.”
Montana District Judge G. Todd Baugh started a furor when he sentenced the former Billings Senior High teacher to prison for just 30 days and suggested the 14-year-old victim shared responsibility in the case.
The girl committed suicide in 2010 while Rambold’s trial was pending.
The judge now says a two-year prison sentence appears mandatory for Rambold.
Prosecutors and a defense attorney say it’s too late for Baugh to reverse course. They contend the case must go through the appeal filed by the state earlier in the week.
The judge ordered Rambold returned Thursday from Montana State Prison for the resentencing hearing in Billings. Baugh said earlier in the week that he intended to hold the hearing even if he was the only one who shows up.
Further complicating the case is the fact that Baugh never signed a written sentencing order after making his oral pronouncement in the case during an Aug. 26 hearing. An oral order takes precedent in Montana, but the written judgment still is required.
University of Montana School of Law professor Jeffrey Renz said the prosecution and defense appear to have the law on their side in arguing Baugh’s attempt to change the sentence violates proper procedures.
But as a practical matter Rambold likely will return to Baugh’s courtroom one way or another, Renz said, since the state Supreme Court would remand the case back to him to fix any sentencing problems.
Beyond the legal issues in play, today's hearing could give Baugh a chance to publicly explain actions that have sparked harsh criticism. Some activists say his disrespect for the victim makes him unfit for office.
A resentencing hearing “gives him a chance to pull his foot out of his mouth,” Renz said.
Baugh said while sentencing Rambold that the victim was “older than her chronological age” and had control over the months-long relationship with her teacher.
Prosecutors had called for a 20-year prison sentence with 10 years suspended. They didn’t challenge the 30-day sentence as illegal until later, when they discovered the mandatory minimum term for sexual intercourse without consent was two years.
The sentence handed down had been suggested by Rambold’s attorney, Jay Lansing.
Lansing said in a Thursday court brief that a new sentence “will only create 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 the law.
Baugh has said giving Rambold the minimum mandatory sentence was appropriate due to the circumstances of the case. He described the former teacher as a low-risk to re-offend who had no prior record and spent 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.