BILLINGS, Mont. — The Billings judge who drew local and national condemnation for sentencing a former Billings Senior High School teacher to 30 days in prison for raping a 14-year-old student canceled a second sentencing hearing on Friday after the Montana Supreme Court intervened in the case.
But District Judge G. Todd Baugh did address an audience of mostly media representatives for about 10 minutes, explaining the legal and procedural history of the Stacey Rambold rape case that has grabbed headlines across the country for the past two weeks.
Less than an hour before Baugh stepped into the courtroom, the Montana Supreme Court issued an order canceling the hearing, telling Baugh that he could not legally change Rambold’s sentence as he intended.
“We conclude that the stated intent of the District Court to alter the initially imposed oral sentence in today’s scheduled hearing is unlawful and that proceeding should be arrested,” the order stated.
The Supreme Court order was announced about 12:50 p.m. Friday by the Montana Attorney General’s Office.
Four justices signed the order granting an emergency motion filed late Thursday by the attorney general’s office. Two justices — Chief Justice Mike McGrath and Justice Brian Morris — said they would have denied the motion.
The court’s seventh justice, Michael Wheat, neither signed nor opposed the order.
The hearing Baugh wanted to hold in order to change Rambold’s sentence was opposed by both the Yellowstone County Attorney’s Office and Rambold’s defense attorney, who argued that Baugh did not have the authority to change the sentence after announcing it in court last week.
In its order, the Supreme Court also said it “takes no position on the legality of the imposed sentence, and will address the parties’ arguments in that regard on appeal.”
Attorney General Tim Fox released a statement later Friday that his office would proceed with the appeal, which was filed on Tuesday.
“While it’s good that Judge Baugh recognizes that his August 26 sentence of Stacey Rambold is contrary to the law, today the state Supreme Court affirmed that Judge Baugh has no authority to amend the sentence unless ordered to do so by the Supreme Court,” Fox said.
Though he did not impose a new sentence, Baugh went ahead with the unusual hearing. The hearing began at 1:40 p.m., and Baugh announced that he had decided on Thursday, before the Supreme Court intervened, to cancel the hearing he intended to hold aimed at re-sentencing Rambold.
There were no prosecutors at the hearing. Neither Rambold, who was brought to the Yellowstone County jail on Thursday from the Montana State Prison to attend the hearing, nor his attorney were in the courtroom.
A reporter from the New York Times and a crew from CNN were among the media representatives at the hearing, which was held on the record with a court reporter and court clerk present.
Baugh told the gathering that he had also on Thursday signed a written judgment altering the sentence he imposed orally against Rambold on Aug. 26. The judge said the new sentence was 15 years in prison, with all but two years suspended, which he said is the minimum legal sentence in the case.
Less that two weeks ago, Baugh sentenced the 54-year-old Rambold to 15 years in prison, with all but 31 days suspended and credit for one day served.
After reviewing the Supreme Court order, Baugh said, he put a note in the file withdrawing that written judgment and signed a new judgment reflecting his original sentence.
Baugh said the confusion over the mandatory minimum sentence in the case “shouldn’t have had to be addressed at all.”
The confusion could have been avoided if “I had been more alert” or if prosecutors had addressed the issue at Rambold’s Aug. 26 sentencing hearing.
At that hearing, the prosecution argued that Rambold should receive a sentence of 20 years in prison, with 10 years suspended.
Baugh instead imposed the sentence requested by Rambold’s defense attorney, Jay Lansing. The sentence caused a national outrage, not only for the prison term imposed on the former teacher, but for the words the judge used to explain the sentence.
Baugh said the victim, Cherice Moralez, who committed suicide in 2010, was “older than her chronological age” and was in some control of the relationship with Rambold.
The judge apologized for the statements two days later, but critics have continued to call for his resignation.
Baugh explained on Friday that the case began with the charges filed in 2008, but resulted in an unusual deferred prosecution agreement in July 2010 after Moralez’s death.
That agreement required Rambold to complete sex offender treatment within three years, and “the case was pointed toward dismissal at that point.”
But Rambold was dropped from the treatment in November 2012, and prosecutors refiled the charges, Baugh said. Rambold pleaded guilty to one of the charges in April, he said.
Baugh said the sentencing hearing on Aug. 26 happened almost six years after the crimes. Rambold was found to be treatable in the community, and had committed no new crimes, he said.
“It seemed to me a suspended sentence was the most appropriate,” Baugh said.
The case will now proceed to the appeal process, the judge said.
“And that’s all I got to say,” Baugh said. “Thank you very much. We’re adjourned.”