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Montana judge says no bias in 30-day term for teacher who raped student

Stacey Rambold, 54, is shown in this undated booking photo provided by Montana State Prison on September 26, 2013. REUTERS/Montana Departmen
Stacey Rambold, 54, is shown in this undated booking photo provided by Montana State Prison on September 26, 2013. REUTERS/Montana Departmen

By Laura Zuckerman

(Reuters) - A Montana judge, under fire for sentencing a former teacher to 30 days in prison for raping a 14-year-old student who later killed herself, has denied allegations he showed racial or gender bias against the victim, documents made public on Tuesday showed.

But District Judge G. Todd Baugh, in a written response to a complaint against him before the Montana Judicial Standards Commission, admitted he violated judicial codes by suggesting that the girl was partly to blame. His response was released by one of the groups that filed the complaint against him.

Baugh sparked outrage earlier this year by imposing a sentence of only 30 days on former Billings high school teacher Stacey Rambold, 54, for the 2007 rape of Cherice Moralez, who he described as appearing to be older than her years and "probably as much in control of the situation" as her teacher.

The Montana and Pennsylvania chapters of the National Organization for Women filed a complaint with the commission in September, in an effort to oust Baugh for the light sentence and remarks they contended violated legal, ethical and conduct rules for jurists. In particular, the groups argued he showed gender and racial bias against the victim, who was Hispanic.

"I believe this sentence to be fair, imposed impartially, and without bias or prejudice," Baugh said in a written response submitted to the commission on November 13 and made public on Tuesday by Montana NOW President Marian Bradley.

"I did not impose this sentence without weighing the relevant factors, and did not impose this sentence based on some misguided attempt to blame the victim," the judge wrote.

Matters before the Montana Judicial Standards Commission are normally kept confidential, but Bradley said she was releasing Baugh's response because confidentiality was not appropriate in a case that has raised questions about the judiciary's handling of sexual assaults. Bradley received a copy of Baugh's response because her organization is a complainant in the case.

Baugh, who could not immediately be reached for comment, admitted in his response that he violated a rule designed to promote public confidence in judges and failed to avoid the appearance of impropriety by imposing a sentence that ignited criticism when coupled with his comments about Moralez.

"Again, I am sorry I made those remarks," Baugh said in the letter. "They focused on the victim when that aspect of the case should have been focused on the defendant."

Rambold was charged in 2008 with three counts of rape. Moralez was a student in his technology class at Billings Senior High School. But before the case could go to trial, Moralez committed suicide in 2010, crippling a prosecution that hinged on her testimony.

In a plea deal struck later that year, Rambold admitted to a single count of rape, while prosecutors postponed the case and agreed to dismiss it if he completed sex offender treatment.

Prosecutors reinstated the case late last year, after Rambold was dismissed from a treatment center for violating its rules. In April he pleaded guilty to rape, and prosecutors sought a 20-year sentence with half of it suspended.

Judge Baugh sentenced him instead to 15 years in prison - with all but 31 days suspended and credit for one day already served.

The Montana attorney general last week formally asked the state Supreme Court to overturn the 30-day sentence because it fell far short of the penalty required by Montana criminal codes and sentencing policies.

(Editing by Alex Dobuzinskis, Cynthia Johnston and Gunna Dickson)

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