MONTANA SUPREME COURT RULES 31-DAY SENTENCE ILLEGAL IN TEACHER/STUDENT SEX CASE

The Montana Supreme Court ruled that Judge G. Todd Baugh erred when he sentenced Stacey Rambold to 31 days (credit one day for time-served) for having sexual intercourse with his 14-year-old student; she was a freshman in his class.  Rambold was charged with 3 counts of having sexual intercourse with the student in 2008, however the parties apparently agreed that he could avoid prison provided he complete a sexual-offender treatment program; Rambold failed to successfully complete the program and was brought back before Baugh for sentencing when the judge imposed the 31 days. The sentencing hearing was controversial not only because the sentence was light (prosecutors wanted prison) but because Baugh attached equal blame to the victim when he said “. . . It was a troubled youth, but a youth who was probably as much in control of the situation as the defendant. .” This language sparked harsh criticism from the Supreme Court when they reminded the trial court that a 14-year-old student couldn’t be in control at all since she lacked legal authority to consent  to the sexual acts. The court also declared the sentence to be illegal. The victim has since died- the apparent victim of a suicide. To avoid the appearance of any impropriety, the appellate court remanded the case to another judge. The state mostly likely will seek a prison term at the next sentencing hearing.

COMMENT: A sentence of the type originally imposed is not that unusual. Emphasis is placed on the offender’s need to get treatment; the victim’s input is usually obtained though. In this case it is not clear what input was received from the victim (since deceased) at the time of the original negotiation. Moreover, it seems clear that the defense and the prosecution agreed to the original disposition; if so, the defendant’s failure to successfully complete the treatment program (proven by clear and convincing evidence) may have been the major reason for bringing the matter back for sentencing. At that point the defendant  risked receiving the original prison sentence; even then, the judge probably had some authority to depart from a prison sentence provided there were compelling circumstances to do so. The problem in this case is the judge’s improper reasoning for the probationary sentence and for his blaming the victim who was incapable of consenting. All of these issues will most certainly be addressed at the new sentencing hearing.

UPDATE: 4/24/15: Judge G. Todd Baugh (73) of Billings, Montana has been chosen for a lifetime achievement award by the Yellowstone Area Bar Association. The pronouncement of the award has ignited controversy given the judge’s controversial remarks concerning the above-mentioned victim’s role in her own rape during a sentencing hearing for the defendant, Stacey Rambold. The sentence Baugh originally imposed in the case, 31 days, was deemed to be illegal by the Montana Supreme Court and he was re-sentenced to 10 years by a different judge. The court also censured Baugh and suspended him from the bench for 30 days. Baugh would later say, “I’m not trying to say I didn’t make any mistakes. If you go into all the mistakes that were made, it would give a better-balanced report”. Although Baugh has his critics, at least one colleague was willing to stand up for him; Judge Russell Fagg, noted that the judge had handled more than 30,000 cases, and that “He had made thousands of good calls, and a few bad calls, as have all of us”.

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