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Montana Supreme Court blocks judge's bid to resentence rapist

Crime, Law and JusticeJustice SystemCrime

Montana’s Supreme Court issued a ruling Friday to block a district judge’s attempt to modify a previously imposed month-long prison sentence for a teacher convicted of raping a student.

The Supreme Court decided that Montana District Judge G. Todd Baugh cannot move forward with a hearing that had been scheduled for Friday at 1:30 p.m. local time to void the 31-day prison sentence that he imposed last week on Stacey Rambold.

The court's ruling came less than an hour before the hearing in Billings was to start.

Rambold, 54, was convicted of raping a then-14-year-old student who killed herself while the case was pending. Baugh sentenced Rambold to a 15-year sentence and suspended all but 31 days of the sentence, with a credit for a single day already served in jail.

“We conclude that the stated intent of the District Court to alter the initially imposed oral sentence in today’s scheduled hearing is unlawful,” said the state Supreme Court's ruling, which requires Baugh to issue a written judgment that aligns with his previous 31-day sentence.

“We take no position on the legality of the imposed sentence and will address the parties’ arguments in that regard on appeal," said the ruling, which was supported by four of the court's six justices. 

Chief Justice Mike McGrath and Justice Brian Morris dissented without comment.

Baugh’s Aug. 26 sentence was widely criticized as too lenient, sparking local and national outrage. The victim's mother criticized Baugh, who in sentencing Rambold remarked that the teenage victim was "older than her chronological age.”

The backlash apparently prompted the veteran judge to backpedal. In a court order issued this week, Baugh, 71, reasoned that his prior sentence was “illegal” because it ignored the mandatory minimum sentence of two years. Friday's hearing, wrote Baugh, would correct the legal error.

Both prosecutors and Rambold’s defense attorneys objected to Baugh’s attempt to undo his previous sentence.

The state’s attorney general filed an emergency petition this week to prohibit Baugh’s hearing, arguing that the “proper avenue to address the illegal sentence” is an appeal before the Supreme Court.

The attorney general’s emergency petition recognized Baugh’s “effort to correct the error” but said that the correct judicial process needs to be upheld with an appeal to the Supreme Court.

Rambold’s attorneys concurred with state prosecutors, maintaining that a new sentencing hearing was inappropriate and the previous sentence should remain in effect, according to court documents.

Prosecutors filed on Wednesday a notice of appeal, which is pending before the state Supreme Court.

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