BILLINGS, Mont. – State prosecutors on Wednesday appealed as "illegal" a 30-day sentence handed down by a Montana judge to a former teacher for raping a student who later killed herself.
The announcement came after District Judge G. Todd Baugh received widespread condemnation for the sentence and his comments that the victim was "older than her chronological age."
Defendant Stacey Rambold, 54, last week received 15 years in prison with all but a month suspended for his months-long sexual relationship with Billings Senior High School student Cherice Moralez.
Attorneys for the state and Yellowstone County say a minimum of two years in prison for Rambold is mandated under state law.
"We believe that the sentence Judge Baugh imposed on Stacey Rambold is illegal," Attorney General Tim Fox said in a statement. "Using the means provided by state law, we are appealing his sentence and working diligently to ensure that justice is served."
Baugh has sought to undo his actions since the Aug. 26 hearing. He said two days later that his comments about Moralez were inappropriate. And earlier this week, Baugh scheduled a resentencing hearing for Rambold for Friday. In that order, the judge agreed with the state's determination that Rambold's original sentence conflicted with Montana law.
But prosecutors on Wednesday filed notice that they want the resentencing canceled so the appeal can proceed. Though Baugh's bid to resentence Rambold is "well-intentioned," Chief Deputy Yellowstone County Attorney Rod Souza wrote, the judge lacks the authority to take back his original sentence.
Moralez's mother, Auliea Hanlon, said through her attorney that she welcomed the appeal and the attorney general's involvement in the case.
"Mrs. Hanlon was horribly disappointed with the 30-day sentence and was, frankly, quite shocked," said her attorney, Shane Colton. "She's pleased that the county attorney's office and attorney general's office understands that the most significant date to be considered in this sentencing is Cherice's birthday. She was 14."
Rambold last week began serving his monthlong term at the state prison in Deer Lodge.
It wasn't immediately clear if prosecutors would seek to keep him in custody pending the appeal, which attorneys said could take between six and 18 months to work its way through the state Supreme Court.
Rambold's attorney, Jay Lansing, has not responded to repeated requests for comment on the case. His office said Wednesday he had no plans to do so.
Court documents and transcripts show Lansing sought a short sentence for his client based in part on Rambold's lack of prior criminal offenses other than a traffic ticket.
Lansing also said the former business teacher had fully accepted responsibility for his actions through a 2010 deferred prosecution agreement, in which Rambold admitted his guilt and agreed to seek treatment as a sex offender.
If Rambold had not violated that agreement by getting kicked out of treatment, he would have gotten off with no prison time once his program ended this year.
Prosecutors, who sought 20 years in prison with 10 years suspended for Rambold, have described his actions with Moralez as the "ultimate violation" of her trust in him as one of her teachers.
Court documents show Rambold and Moralez had three sexual encounters – once at school, once in his car and once at his home. The relationship was still going on when authorities were notified in 2008 after Moralez confided in her youth counselor, the records state.
"Law enforcement intervention ended the relationship, not the defendant," prosecutors said in a pre-sentencing memorandum.
Moralez's 2010 suicide left prosecutors without their main witness and led them to strike the deal with Rambold that allowed him to avoid prison.
Souza, the county prosecutor, argued before Baugh that Rambold "already had his shot" at a more lenient sentence through the deferred prosecution agreement.
"That's a tremendous break on a case like this, and all he had to do is make the appointments, go through the program, keep his treatment provider informed," Souza said during the Aug. 26 hearing. "He has miserably failed at that."
Rambold's violations of the sex offender program included unauthorized visits with the children of family members and a sexual relationship with an adult woman that he didn't report to a counselor. After those events landed Rambold back in court, he was convicted this summer on one count of sexual intercourse without consent.
Whether Baugh's comments about Moralez will become an issue during the appeal is not yet known. Deputy Attorney General Mark Mattioli said it would be inappropriate to comment on the matter at this time.
The judge's actions in the wake of the original sentencing have done little to sway his critics, including hundreds of protesters who rallied outside the Yellowstone County Courthouse last week to call for his resignation. Even Baugh's belated acknowledgement that the sentence he handed down might have been illegal was met with disdain.
"I wish the judge had been thoughtful enough to get it right the first time," said Eran Thompson with Not in Our Town, a Billings group that promotes diversity and works against hate crimes.
Baugh, 71, was first elected to the bench in 1984 and has been re-elected every six years since without an opponent. He's up for re-election in 2014.
He said in response to the criticism that followed his remarks that Rambold's sentence was based on the defendant's violation of the 2010 deal he made with prosecutors, rather than the original crime. Baugh also said his remarks about Moralez were "irrelevant" and did not factor into his sentence.