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Montana's Supreme Court on Friday blocked a judge’s attempt to resentence a former teacher who had received 30 days in prison for his months-long relationship with a 14-year-old student, who later took her own life.
Justices said Judge G. Todd Baugh lacks authority to reconsider the sentence he gave former Billings, Mont. teacher Stacey Rambold, 54. An appeal of the case was already pending, but Baugh had been seeking to undo a sentence that was widely criticized when he remarked that victim Cherice Moralez was "older than her chronological age."
An online petition calling for Baugh’s resignation, after he was widely seen as letting the former teacher off lightly with a month-long sentence, has garnered more than 50,000 signatures.
The girl in the case committed suicide in 2010, while Rambold's trial was pending.
The Attorney General's Office filed an emergency petition to stop Friday's hearing, scheduled for 1:30 p.m. MDT. Attorneys for the state warned that holding it as planned could throw the case into disarray and "cause gross injustice to an orderly appeal."
The high court on Friday afternoon vacated the resentencing hearing and ordered Baugh to enter a written sentencing for Rambold. Baugh had never signed a written sentencing order after making his oral pronouncement in the case during an Aug. 26 hearing. The oral order takes precedence in Montana, but the written judgment still is required.
Prosecutors contend that state law dictates Rambold serve at least two years in prison. Rambold's defense attorney wanted the sentence unchanged, but agreed with prosecutors that it can be undone only on appeal.
The Yellowstone County Attorney's office had originally called for a 20-year prison sentence for Rambold, with 10 years suspended.
But prosecutors did not challenge the 30-day sentence as illegal until after the fact, when they discovered the mandatory minimum term for sexual intercourse without consent was two years.
The sentence handed down Aug. 26 had been suggested by Rambold's attorney, Jay Lansing.
Lansing said in a court brief filed this week that a new sentence from Baugh would have created "confusion and uncertainty for all parties."
He also said that the original sentence -- 15 years with all but 31 days suspended and a one-day credit for time served -- was allowed under state law.
Baugh has said giving Rambold the minimum mandatory sentence was appropriate due to the circumstances of the case. He described the former teacher with no prior record as a low risk to re-offend after spending more than two years in a sex-offender treatment program.
The defendant entered that program in 2010, after Moralez's suicide left prosecutors without their main witness in the case shortly before it was scheduled to go to trial.
That led to a deferred prosecution deal that allowed Rambold to avoid trial until he violated the terms of the agreement last year, for not reporting that he was in a sexual relationship with a woman and for unauthorized visits with family members' children.
Court documents show there were complaints about Rambold's conduct with female students as early as 2004. Three years before his relationship with Moralez, prosecutors say, "he was warned to stay away from young girls in his class."
No charges were filed, and Lansing has said his client would challenge those accusations.
Al Jazeera and The Associated Press
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