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Montana judge, facing impeachment threat for lenient rape sentencing, set to retire next month

A Montana district court judge who caused a public uproar by imposing a two-month sentence on a father for repeatedly raping his 12-year-old daughter is about to step down from the bench.

But it will be retirement, not the public firestorm and petition to impeach him, that will send Valley County District Judge John McKeon packing Nov. 30. The judge had announced he was ending his 22-year judicial career in September, a month before he issued the controversial Oct. 4 sentence that launched a fast-moving effort to remove him from office.

McKeon nonetheless will depart with the sound of protest in his ears for rejecting the 25-year sentence recommended by prosecutors.

"The sentence may not be a popular decision by certain members of the general public,” McKeon said in a statement, “but it is a just and proper decision given the record before the court and the law the court is sworn to uphold.”

A change.org petition to impeach the judge drew 3,000 signatures on its first day a week ago and as of Friday had swelled to more than 80,000 names, more than 10 times the population of Valley County, Mont., where McKeon presides.

“It is time to start punishing the judges who let these monsters walk our streets,” the petition says.

Launched by a group called Justice4Montana, the drive is the latest example of voters pushing back against judges they believe have handed down lenient sentences, a movement driven by Internet activism. 

The targets have included another Montana judge,  G. Todd Baugh, who issued a 30-day sentence to a former high school teacher who raped a 14-year-old student. Baugh had also put blame on the victim, saying she was “as much in control of the situation” as the teacher. The girl committed suicide before the case went to trial, and public pressure led to judicial censoring of Baugh and a far harsher sentence for the ex-teacher — 10 years in state prison.

In Orange County last year, an online effort to remove Judge M. Marc Kelly from the bench failed when it fell short of the necessary signatures. Kelly had sentenced a 20-year-old man to 10 years in prison for sexually assaulting a 3-year-old girl, though prosecutors contended that state law mandated a term of 25 years to life.

Most prominently, Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky is still trying to stave off a recall drive after sentencing Stanford swimmer Brock Turner to six months in jail for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman last year. Turner, who has already completed his sentence, “is a free man,” U.S. Senate candidate and Orange County congresswoman Loretta Sanchez said last month. “And yet women who have been sexually assaulted are still prisoners of fear.”

In Montana, organizers of the McKeon impeachment point out that the judge sentenced the 40-year-old father to 60 days of incarceration with credit for time already served, “meaning he will only serve 43 days for the brutal sexual assault,” which prosecutors described as repeated molestations and rapes. The Times is not naming the father in order to protect the girl’s identity.

Organizers acknowledge on the petition site that the state Judicial Standards Commission “must review this case to right this wrong, but in the meantime, we can ensure Judge McKeon doesn’t get to retire and collect a paycheck from taxpayers after failing to fulfill his duty as a judge.”

They did not explain how an impeachment process could begin and end prior to McKeon’s retirement in about six weeks. According to Montana law, either two-thirds of the state Legislature must vote for impeachment to get the ball rolling or a judicial commission must recommend McKeon’s impeachment be considered by the state Supreme Court.

A plea agreement between the father and prosecutors had recommended a 100-year sentence with 75 years suspended. The father would also have to enter into a sexual offender treatment program and pay costs of therapy and treatment for the daughter.

McKeon said the 25-year punishment did not fit the crime. He cited four issues he had to consider in sentencing — the degree of harm, public safety, recovery of the victim and reintegration of an offender. 

He noted that the man’s mother and wife urged the court to be lenient and cited a sentencing exception that permits psychiatric treatment in lieu of prison time in some cases. McKeon also gave the man a 30-year suspended sentence, meaning he could be sent to prison if he violates conditions of his probation.

A member of the Montana Sex Offender Treatment Assn., Michael Sullivan, said at the sentencing that the father could be safely treated and supervised as a sex offender in the community, the Billings Gazette reported. McKeon said the father may have no contact with the daughter and must go through treatment.

The father got the sentence he deserved, McKeon said, because "the court cannot ignore these legal standards.” 

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