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Montana high court weighs intervention over 30-day rape sentence

By Laura Zuckerman

(Reuters) - The Montana Supreme Court was weighing on Friday whether to intervene in a high-profile case in which an ex-teacher was sentenced to a month in jail for raping a 14-year-old student who later killed herself.

District Judge G. Todd Baugh drew a torrent of ridicule after sentencing former Billings high school teacher Stacey Rambold last week to 30 days in jail for the 2007 rape of Cherice Moralez at his home.

The short sentence, coupled with the judge's remarks that the girl seemed older than her years and was "probably as much in control of the situation" as her teacher, sparked outrage among women's groups and victims' advocates.

Hundreds demonstrated outside Baugh's offices last week, calling for his resignation. Prosecutors vowed to appeal the sentence as unlawfully lenient, saying Rambold should probably have received a minimum of two years of prison time.

Baugh ultimately apologized for his remarks and agreed that the sentence - a 15-year term with all but a month suspended - was probably lighter than state law allows. He set a hearing for Friday to review the matter and potentially amend his judgment.

But as anger over the sentence mounted, State Attorney General Tim Fox asked the Montana Supreme Court justices on Thursday evening to bar Baugh from holding the planned sentencing review, saying it was now a matter for appeals courts.

It was not immediately clear whether the court would act before the hearing was due to begin at 1:30 p.m. local time (3:30 p.m. EDT).

On Wednesday, Fox said the sentence fell short of the mandatory minimum and asked the state Supreme Court to overturn it. He has said that a district judge did not have the authority to revise an illegal sentence.

Rambold, 54, was charged in 2008 with three counts of sexual intercourse without consent, the equivalent of a rape charge in Montana, linked to Moralez, who had been a student in a technology class Rambold taught at Senior High School in Billings.

Moralez killed herself in 2010 before the case could go to trial, hampering a prosecution that hinged on her testimony. Her mother, Auliea Hanlon, has said Rambold's actions were a "major factor" in her daughter's decision to take her own life.

The death led prosecutors later that year to strike a deal in which Rambold admitted to a single count of rape in exchange for a three-year postponement of the case and dismissal if he completed sex offender treatment.

Prosecutors reinstated the case after being notified last year that Rambold, who was suspended in 2008 from his teaching post and later surrendered his teaching certificate, had been dismissed from the program for violating its rules.

In April, Rambold pleaded guilty to sexual intercourse without consent stemming from the 2007 assault. In sentencing him last week, the judge ignored a recommendation by prosecutors that he receive a 20-year term with half of it suspended for actions they said represented "the ultimate violation and abuse of his position of trust."

Baugh did not immediately respond to requests for comment and Rambold's attorney, Jay Lansing, declined to comment.

(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Leslie Adler)

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