Subscribe for 33¢ / day

The fury over a Yellowstone County District Court rape sentence is unprecedented. Over the past week, national and international news media has constantly replayed the court story first reported by The Billings Gazette. People from as far away as Florida, Maryland, Kansas and California are emailing their outrage at the sentence Judge Todd Baugh pronounced for Stacey Rambold’s crime. On Thursday, a crowd estimated at more than 300 gathered on the Yellowstone County Courthouse lawn to demand that Baugh resign.

The 30-day sentence on a rape conviction is unconscionable. It should be changed, but not because public opinion demands it. Rather, the sentence should be changed because it isn’t justified by the law and the facts of this case.

5-year-old criminal case

Every aspect of the case is terrible. In 2010, after the young victim committed suicide, the county attorney’s office made the difficult, controversial decision to make a deal with Rambold. Without the victim’s testimony, there wasn’t a case to take to trial.

So the county attorney’s office deferred prosecution on the condition that Rambold plead guilty to one count of rape and complete sex offender treatment. The agreement also said that if Rambold failed to complete treatment as he agreed, his guilty plea could be used against him.

Well, Rambold failed to complete treatment last year. The county attorney’s office commenced prosecution. On Monday, Chief Deputy County Attorney Rod Souza asked Baugh to impose a sentence of 20 years with 10 suspended.

Instead, Baugh set a sentence of 15 years with all but 31 days suspended. At sentencing, Baugh basically said the 14-year-old victim was “older” than her age and was as responsible as Rambold for what happened.

Two days later, Baugh apologized for those offensive remarks and said: “I’m not sure what I was attempting to say, but it did not come out correct.”

If he isn’t sure what he said, how can the judge be sure about the sentence?

Sentencing addendum

The sentencing addendum Baugh filed Thursday reveals that he misinterpreted the reason for the deferred prosecution. He refers to it as “a form of pretrial probation.” And concludes that Rambold’s violations of sex-offender treatment program rules “are relatively minor infractions.” The judge states that “probation-like requirements” are still appropriate “because there have been no substantive negative changes.”

Baugh misses the fact that this is an original sentence – not a probation violation.

We are troubled that the judge cited the victim’s statements as part of the reason for not sending Rambold to prison. Whatever the victim may have said or not said, she was a 14-year-old high school student when her teacher, Rambold, had sex with her. That constitutes felony rape under Montana law. The fact that the perpetrator was the child’s teacher argues for a longer prison sentence.

It is unclear whether the judge can legally change the sentence on his own at this point. However, we call on him to pursue that possibility.

County Attorney Scott Twito said Thursday that his office’s review of the case suggests that Baugh erred and that Rambold should have received at least two years in prison. Twito was working with the appellate division of the Montana Attorney General’s Office to determine whether there is legal basis to appeal.

We urge Twito and Attorney General Tim Fox to continue to give this case top priority so that an appropriate prison sentence can imposed as soon as possible. Not because The Gazette or a crowd of protesters said so, but because prison is the right, lawful consequence of this terrible crime.


Opinion Editor

Opinion editor for The Billings Gazette.