The furor over the 30-day sentence given to a teacher who raped a 14-year-old girl offers the chance to clean up holes in how the state sentences criminals, a Montana prosecutor said.
Stacey Rambold, 54, was released from Montana State Prison this week and returned to Billings after fulfilling the term handed down by District Judge G. Todd Baugh, who sparked outrage when he commented that victim Cherice Moralez was “older than her chronological age.”
Rambold’s sentence is under review by the Montana Supreme Court, after the state appealed the monthlong term as illegal.
Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito said Friday he’s hopeful justices will use the case to clarify sentencing statutes that have been interpreted differently from case to case.
“Any clarification we can get from the Supreme Court would be incredibly helpful,” Twito said during a Friday interview at his offices in Billings. “If anything good can come of this, perhaps that’s it.”
Moralez killed herself before the case went to trial.
State prosecutors said Rambold should have received a minimum of two years under state law. Baugh relied on a different section of the same statute when he gave the defendant 15 years with all but 31 days suspended and a one-day credit for time served.
Barring new offenses, the former high school teacher has served his time and will stay out of prison pending the outcome of the appeal.
Prosecutors earlier requested that Rambold receive 20 years with 10 years suspended.
Twito said Friday that remains an appropriate sentence. However, it’s uncertain whether the appeal process would offer the chance to increase the sentence beyond the mandatory minimum.
“My hope is to do justice in this case first and foremost, and give justice to the victim’s surviving family members,” Twito said. “But purely from a legal standpoint, the statutes are difficult to interpret and oftentimes cumbersome, and perhaps the Supreme Court can shed some light on that.”
A spokesman for Attorney General Tim Fox, whose office is handling the appeal, declined to say whether the state will seek a term longer than two years. Spokesman John Barnes said it would be inappropriate to discuss such details before the state files its opening brief in coming weeks.
Rambold has registered as a level 1 sex offender, meaning he’s considered a low risk to re-offend. He will remain on probation through 2028 unless the original sentence is overruled.
His attorney, Jay Lansing, has declined to comment on his release.
Rambold went before Baugh last month after he violated a deferred-prosecution agreement by getting booted out of a sex-offender treatment program for unauthorized visits with relatives’ children and not disclosing that he was in a sexual relationship with an adult woman.
Baugh appeared to show sympathy for the defendant and agreed with Lansing’s recommendation that Rambold receive a 15-year sentence with all but one month suspended.
At the Aug. 26 sentencing hearing, Baugh appeared to pin some of the blame in the case on Moralez. In addition to the remark about the girl’s age, Baugh said she was “probably as much in control of the situation as was the defendant.”
The comments drew a backlash from advocates who said the judge was blaming a victim who had not reached Montana’s age of consent, which is 16.
The judge later apologized. He said the comments were based on videotaped interviews with Moralez by investigators and Lansing. Those videos have not been publicly released.
A formal complaint to have Baugh removed from the bench for alleged bias is pending before the state Judicial Standards Commission.