BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — A Montana judge on Wednesday stood by his decision to send a former teacher to prison for 30 days for raping a 14-year-old girl who later killed herself, but said he "deserved to be chastised" for his comments about the young victim.
District Judge G. Todd Baugh sentenced former Billings Senior High School teacher Stacey Rambold to 15 years, then suspended all but 31 days and gave him credit for one day already served.
In handing down the sentence Monday, Baugh said the teenage victim was "older than her chronological age" and had as much control of the situation as the teacher who raped her.
Faced with a backlash over the comments and calls for his resignation, Baugh, 71, wrote an apology in a letter to the editor of The Billings Gazette. He said his comments were demeaning of all women and not reflective of his beliefs.
Later Wednesday, the judge spoke to reporters in his office. He said he was "fumbling around" in court trying to explain his sentence and "made some really stupid remarks."
"I don't know how to pass that off. I'm saying I'm sorry and it's not who I am," Baugh said. "I deserve to be chastised. I apologize for that."
However, Rambold's sentence was appropriate, he said.
Rambold was charged in October 2008 with three counts of sexual intercourse without consent after authorities alleged he had an ongoing sexual relationship with Cherice Moralez, starting the previous year when she was 14. Moralez killed herself in 2010 at age 16 while the case was pending, and the girl's mother, Auleia Hanlon, said her daughter's relationship with Rambold was a "major factor."
Hanlon said in a statement to the Gazette that she no longer believes in justice after Baugh's sentence and remarks about her daughter.
"She wasn't even old enough to get a driver's license. But Judge Baugh, who never met our daughter, justified the paltry sentence saying she was older than her chronological age," Hanlon said. "I guess somehow it makes a rape more acceptable if you blame the victim, even if she was only 14."
Under state law, children younger than 16 cannot consent to sexual intercourse.
Yellowstone County officials previously agreed to defer Rambold's prosecution for three years and dismiss the charges if he completed a sexual offender treatment program. The case was revived in December after prosecutors learned Rambold, 54, was kicked out of the program for having unsupervised visits with minors who were family members and not telling counselors he was having a sexual relationship with a woman.
Defense attorney Jay Lansing said Rambold has continued his treatment with a different program and an evaluation found him at low risk to re-offend. Prosecutors had recommended a 10-year prison term.
"My thought was, given the relatively minor violations in the sex offender treatment program, it didn't seem appropriate to put him in jail, put him in prison" for a longer time, Baugh said. "It didn't seem to me that the violations were such that the state should be able to back out of their agreement."
A protest scheduled for Thursday outside Yellowstone County Courthouse will go on despite Baugh's apology, said organizer Sheena Rice.
"I'm glad he apologized, but he should have known better as a judge," Rice said. "The fact that he said it makes me think he still believes it."
A petition will be circulated at the protest calling for Baugh's resignation. An online version of the petition had more than 17,500 signatures by late Wednesday afternoon.
If the petition and protest aren't enough to force Baugh's resignation, protesters will shift to defeating him in the 2014 election, Rice said.
Baugh was first elected to the bench in 1984 and has been re-elected every six years since then without an opponent.
He said he has no plans to resign and he has not decided whether to run again in 2014.
Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito previously said he disagreed with the judge's ruling but would not appeal it.
"The judge's reasons are his reasons and his reasons alone. He has broad authority under state law," Twito said Tuesday.
On Wednesday, he told the Gazette his office was reviewing the sentence to make sure it conforms to the facts of the case and the law.
Twito also said he has consulted with the appellate division of the Attorney General's Office about the case.
Volz reported from Helena.
Information from: Billings Gazette, http://www.billingsgazette.com