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US court overturns former teacher's rape sentence that was panned as too lenient

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BILLINGS, Mont. - A former high school teacher who raped a 14-year-old student could be headed back to prison after the Montana Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that his original one-month sentence was too short under state sentencing laws.

The court ordered a new judge to re-sentence defendant Stacey Dean Rambold.

Rambold was released after fulfilling the original sentence last fall, and is expected to remain free pending his reappearance in state District Court.

Wednesday's unanimous decision means Rambold must serve a minimum of two years in prison under state law, Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito said.

The high court cited in part the actions of District Judge G. Todd Baugh, of Billings, who caused outrage by suggesting that the victim shared responsibility for her rape and had some control over the situation.

The defendant was a 47-year-old business teacher at Billings Senior High School at the time of the 2007 rape. The victim, one of his students, killed herself in 2010 while Rambold was awaiting trial.

Under state law, children younger than 16 cannot consent to sexual intercourse.

Ramould's sentence had been appealed by the state Department of Justice.

Attorney General Tim Fox said the Supreme Court's actions had "rebuffed attempts to place blame on a child victim of this horrible crime."

Rambold's attorneys had insisted in court filings that the original sentence was appropriate, and cited a "lynch mob" mentality following the huge public outcry over the case.

Like Baugh, they suggested the girl bore some responsibility for the rape, and referenced videotaped interviews with her before she committed suicide. Those interviews remain under seal by the court.

Rambold attorney Jay Lansing was travelling and not immediately available, his office said.

The family of victim Cherice Moralez issued a statement through attorney Shane Colton saying the court's decision had restored their faith in the judicial system. The statement urged the family's supporters to continue working together to keep children safe from sexual predators.

During last year's sentencing hearing, prosecutors sought a 20-year prison term for Rambold with 10 years suspended.

But Baugh followed Lansing's recommendations and handed down a sentence of 15 years with all but 31 days suspended and a one-day credit for time served.

After his release, he was required to register as a sex offender and was to remain on probation through 2028.

The Supreme Court did not specify what sentence would be more appropriate. That means Rambold potentially could face even more time in prison than the mandatory minimum.

Twito said he would consult with attorneys in his office and the victim's family before deciding how much prison time prosecutors will seek. It will be a minimum of 30 days before the case is re-assigned and brought before a new judge, he said.

The judge sparked outrage when he commented that victim Cherice Moralez was "older than her chronological age."

Her death took away the prosecution's main witness and resulted in a deferred-prosecution agreement that required Ramobld to attend a sex-offender treatment program.

When he was booted from that program — for not disclosing a sexual relationship with an adult woman and having an unauthorized visit with the children of his relatives — the charge were reinstated.

When Rambold went before Baugh in August, the judge appeared to show sympathy for the defendant and agreed with Lansing's sentencing recommendation.

A disciplinary complaint against Baugh from the Judicial Standards Commission is pending with the state Supreme Court.

Baugh, 72, was first elected in 1984. He has said he deserves a public reprimand or censure for undermining the credibility of the judiciary and plans to retire when his six-year term expires at the end of the year.

He was unsure when the Supreme Court would act on the complaint against him.

"I expect at some point to appear before them, but don't know when," he said.

The leader of a women's group that filed one of the complaints against Baugh said Wednesday's high court decision gave advocates only part of what they want.

"The other part of the victory will be when something is done about Baugh," said Marian Bradley, president of the Montana chapter of the National Organization for Women.

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