Sometimes the wheels of justice turn at an agonizingly slow pace. Such is the case of the sexual assaults on a 14-year-old Billings high school student perpetrated by a 47-year-old business teacher.
Every aspect of this case is terrible. The victim, Cherice Moralez, took her own life while the trial was delayed repeatedly on behalf of Stacey Rambold. What Rambold did to that young girl constitutes rape under Monday law. He was suspended from teaching after his crimes were reported to school administration and his teaching certificate was permanently revoked.
Last week, in a unanimous opinion written by Justice Michael Wheat, the Supreme Court left no doubt that Montana law requires Rambold to serve at least two years in prison.
The Supreme Court agreed that the 31-day jail sentence imposed by Judge G. Todd Baugh last August was illegal and sent the case back to Yellowstone County with an order that it be reassigned to a new judge.
“I am relieved the court believed what we had maintained all along,” County Attorney Scott Twito said. The court opinion states that four years is the minimum sentence for rape and that law requires offenders to serve at least two years of that sentence in prison.
Baugh had sentenced Rambold to 15 years, but required that he be incarcerated for only 31 days. The County Attorney’s Office recommended 20 years with 10 suspended.
It’s uncertain what Rambold’s new sentence will be. The Supreme Court decision basically takes the case back to where it was before Baugh improperly sentenced Rambold.
It’s unusual for the Supreme Court to order that a new judge be assigned to a case. However, Wheat cited precedents involving a judge’s biased remarks and widespread publicity.
“Judge Baugh’s statements reflected an improper basis for his decision and cast serious doubt on the appearance of justice,” Wheat wrote. “The idea that C.M. (Cherice Moralez) could have ‘control’ of the situation is directly at odds with the law, which holds that a youth is incapable of consent, and therefore, lacks any control over the situation whatsoever.”
That’s exactly what was stated in this column nine months ago.
Baugh apologized within days for his remarks about the victim, acknowledged that the sentence was illegal and proposed to change it. But law required that due process be followed, that Rambold have the opportunity to answer the appeal and that the Supreme Court decide.
Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito and Attorney General Tim Fox are commended for promptly appealing the outrageously lenient sentence.
In coming weeks another judge will review this complex case, this awful series of crimes committed against a student by a man who was her high school business teacher. Justice must be done, but it will take a while longer.