BILLINGS, Mont. — An embattled Montana judge is poised on Friday to try to undo his lenient sentence in the case of a teacher who raped a student, despite warnings from both prosecutors and the defense that he doesn’t have that authority.
The girl committed suicide in 2010 while the case was pending.
After apologizing for his comments, Baugh now says a two-year minimum prison sentence appears mandatory and that his original sentence appears to be illegal. On the judge’s order, Rambold was returned from Montana State Prison for a Friday resentencing hearing in Billings.
But the state already has appealed the case, and both prosecutors and the defense say only the Montana Supreme Court has the power to fix any mistakes made at the sentencing.
On Thursday, the Montana Attorney General’s Office submitted an emergency petition asking justices to block the Friday resentencing. State attorneys said the hearing would “cause a gross injustice to an orderly appeal.”
Baugh said earlier in the week that he intended to hold the hearing even if he was the only one who shows up. His office said late Thursday that the hearing would proceed.
Rambold’s attorney said in a Thursday court brief that a new sentence “will only create confusion and uncertainty for all parties.” Attorney Jay Lansing also said the original sentence — 15 years with all but 31 days suspended and a one-day credit for time served—was appropriate under the law.
Further complicating the matter is the fact that Baugh never signed a written sentencing order after making his oral pronouncement in the case during an Aug. 26 hearing. The 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 turn back the clock on the case violates proper procedures.
But as a practical matter Rambold likely will again end up before Baugh one way or another, Renz said, since the Supreme Court would remand the case back to him to fix any sentencing problems.
Beyond the legal issues in play, Friday’s hearing could give Baugh a chance to publicly explain actions that have sparked harsh criticism for the judge, including from activists who 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 at Rambold’s Aug. 26 sentencing that victim Cherice Moralez was “older than her chronological age” and had control over the months-long relationship with her teacher.
The sentence he handed down was suggested by Rambold’s attorney.
Prosecutors had called for a 20-year prison sentence with 10 years suspended. They didn’t challenge the 30-day sentence as illegal until after the fact, when they discovered the mandatory minimum for sexual intercourse without consent was two years in prison.
Baugh has said it was appropriate for Rambold to receive the minimum sentence required. He has described the former teacher as a low-risk offender with no prior record who spent more than two years in a sex-offender treatment program.
Rambold 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 agreement that allowed Rambold to avoid trial until he violated the terms of the deal 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 ever filed, and Lansing has said his client would challenge those accusations.