About 10 days ago, during my morning readings, my outrage meter flashed all the way into the red when I learned a judge in Billings, Montana, had sentenced a man who raped a child to what amounted to just 30 days in jail. I wasn’t the only one who was furious; at a hearing over the matter on Thursday of this week reporters from Britain, the New York Times and almost all places in between packed the courtroom as Judge G. Todd Baugh tried to scramble out of the mess.
Judge Baugh, the center of a firestorm that included an incensed state governor, 300 protesters in front of the Yellowstone County Courthouse, and the scorn of the entire nation, had called a second hearing after he learned the minimum mandatory sentence for sexual intercourse without consent in Montana is two years. But an hour before he took the bench on Thursday afternoon, the State Supreme Court stepped in with an emergency order, telling Judge Baugh he lacked the authority to change the sentence.
Suddenly the case has become even a bigger disaster but the legal circus is nothing compared to the undeniable facts; a 14-year-old girl was raped by her teacher, committed suicide before the case ever came to trial, and the perpetrator almost escaped jail altogether before he violated the rules of his sex-offender program and was finally prosecuted for his heinous crime.
Judge Baugh, the youngest son of pro football great Sammy Baugh, originally sentenced Stacey Rambold, who taught business and technology at Billings Senior High, to 15 years in the state prison with all but 31 days suspended. On Thursday the judge intended to write a new judgment altering the sentence to 15 years, with all but two years suspended, but an emergency order from the state’s Supreme Court said such was “unlawful and that proceedings should be arrested.”
Prosecutors, who originally asked the judge for 20 years, with 10 suspended, had already filed an appeal on Tuesday and are expected to vigorously fight Judge Baugh’s initial sentence. Rambold, who is 54 years old, is now serving the 30-day sentence at the state prison in Deer Lodge and before he is released later this month the prosecution hopes to have the sentence changed.
Auliea Hanlon, the mother of the victim who shouted, “You Suck!” at the judge and ran from the courtroom when the original sentence was given two weeks ago, has calmed down but is shocked at the “invasion” of the media and the stinging international outcry. “I wasn’t happy about it at first,” she said as the telephone calls and requests for interviews at her front door were ceaseless.
“But it’s almost restored my faith in humans. I used to say I don’t pray for humans; I pray for humanity,” she told the Billings Gazette. “But there’s good people out there. People who are willing to say enough is enough, stand up and, you know, be loud about it.”
Hanlon said her daughter was outgoing and happy but, when the girl was 10, took her amicable divorce with the girl’s father hard. Her daughter did good and bad in school, depending on her interests, but when her mother found out that Rambold had victimized her daughter, the police soon charged the teacher with three counts of rape.
When the rapes were revealed and Rambold was suspended without pay, her daughter became even more withdrawn and distant, refusing help from school counselors and “clamming up” as speculation swept through the student body. Rambold had allegedly been warned several times by school officials to stay away from young girls before he began an illicit relationship with the vulnerable victim, who was 14 at the time.
The girl moved away to live with her grandmother for two years but when she returned to Billings, she never went back to school. Her mother told the Billings newspaper her daughter was never the same. Three weeks before her 17th birthday she took her life and today her mother pleads, “If you are being harassed, if you hurt, talk anyways.”
With the lead witness no longer available, prosecutors felt their case was weakened so they made a deal with Rambold. If he would agree to a three-year sex offender’s program, and register as a sex offender, they would drop charges. But Rambold dropped out of the program, violating specific rules, and prosecutors renewed the case.
At the original sentencing, Judge Baugh noted the deceased victim was “older than her chronological age” and said he felt the girl was in some control of the situation, which caused critics around the world to gasp; a 14-year old who would later take her own life!
Judge Baugh quickly apologized but protesters are still livid. “(The judge) took no responsibility, no ownership. He blamed the state, blamed the prosecutor,” said Marian Bradley, president of the Montana National Organization for Women. She also told reporters that “his earlier comments tell women it’s not OK to step forward, because even if you do, you could be knocked down by a judge.”
But protestor Doug Oltrogge, 32, said it best, “It’s like a double breach of the public trust … It’s like the system failed us twice.”