A Montana judge is making headlines for comments he made after sentencing a school teacher to only thirty days for raping a fourteen-year-old student who later committed suicide.
The case began in 2008 when prosecutors charged high school teacher Stacey Dean Rambold, now 54, with three counts of rape for having sex with Cherice Morales when she was 14. The case was pending two years later when Morales took her own life. Prosecutors decided to make a deal with Rambold under which he would have gotten no jail time. He admitted to one count of rape in exchange for them dismissing all charges against him if he completed a three-year treatment program for sex offenders. Rambold entered the program in July 2010 but stopped attending sessions in 2012. In November 2012, he was kicked out of the program when administrators learned that, in violation of the program’s rules, he was having unsupervised visits with minors and had entered into a sexual relationship with a woman without informing his treatment supervisor.
When prosecutors found out that he was no longer in the program, they revoked their deal, refiled charges, and asked the judge to sentence Rambold to twenty years, with ten years suspended.
Montana District Judge G. Todd Baugh, however, did not believe that Rambold’s crime deserved that harsh a sentence. Instead, he sentenced him to fifteen years with all but thirty-one days suspended, with credit for one day spent in jail—meaning Rambold will only spend 30 days behind bars.
Baugh explained his decision by saying that the victim was a “troubled youth” who was “older than her chronological age.” Even though fourteen-year-olds cannot consent in Montana (the age of consent is 16), the judge went on to say that she was “as much in control of the situation” as her teacher. It is important to remember that he made this assessment of Morales based only on statements she made before her death. He never met her or heard her side of the story.
The age and experience gap in this case is disturbing. He was thirty-five years her senior; as her mother pointed out, she wasn’t even old enough to drive. More importantly, he was a teacher, and she was a student. There is an inherent power imbalance in this relationship, regardless of the age of the players. There is no way that Morales had as much control over the situation as Rambold did.
The judge was immediately criticized for the sentence. The following day, Judge Bough told the Billings Gazette that he thought the sentence was appropriate because of the nature of the crime. He explained, “I think that people have in mind that this was some violent, forcible, horrible rape. It was horrible enough as it is just given her age, but it wasn’t this forcible beat-up rape.” Implying that Morales was not “really” raped because she didn’t end up with a black eye or broken rib is incredibly offensive.
On Wednesday, Judge Bough apologized for his remarks. In an apology published in the Gazette, he said he was “not sure just what I was attempting to say, but it did not come out correct.” He added, “What I said is demeaning of all women, not what I believe, and irrelevant to the sentencing.”
Ultraviolet and MoveOn.org are circulating petitions calling for Bough’s resignation and dismissal, and a protest against him was held outside the courthouse on Thursday.
While the judge’s fate has yet to be decided, the fate of the others involved in the case is clear: Cherice Morales is dead, and Stacey Rambold will be free by fall.