A Montana judge is making national headlines for comments he made after sentencing a school teacher to a mere 30 days for raping a 14-year-old student who has since committed suicide. The reasoning behind his decision, and even the wording of his subsequent public apologies, show just how much he (and the rest of us) have left to learn about issues of rape and consent.
The case began in 2008 when prosecutors charged high school business teacher Stacey Dean Rambold, now 54, with three counts of rape for having sex with Cherice Morales when she was 14. The case was still pending in 2010 when Morales took her own life shortly before her 17th birthday. Without a star witness, prosecutors decided to make a deal with Rambold under which—had he upheld his end of the bargain—he would have gotten no jail time at all. He admitted to one count of rape (knowing it could be used against him in the future) 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 the summer of 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 20 years, with ten years suspended; this would have meant ten years in prison. Montana District Judge G. Todd Baugh, however, did not believe that Rambold’s crime deserved that harsh a sentence. Instead, he sentenced him to 15 years with all but 31 days suspended and he gave him credit for one day already 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 14-year-olds cannot legally give 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. While we struggle to digest these statements, we also have to remember that he made this assessment of Morales based only on statements she made before her death. He never met her or directly heard her side of the story.
I will say that I, too, believe that chronological age is not necessarily the best indicator of ability to consent. I also believe that the current age of consent laws in this country are a problem because they can criminalize relationships that are actually consensual, non-exploitative, honest, mutually pleasurable, and otherwise healthy. Under some state’s age of consent laws, for example, a typical high school relationship between a 15-year-old sophomore and an 18-year-old senior could be considered illegal, and if things went bad between the teens or their parent, the 18-year-old could even end up in jail.
But this is not at all what happened in the relationship between Morales and Rambold. The age and experience gap is disturbing. He was 35 years her senior—as her mother pointed out, she wasn’t even old enough to drive. Perhaps more importantly, however, 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, that leaves the student open to coercion, manipulation, and exploitation. We will never know exactly what transpired between the two, but there is no way that Morales had as much control over the situation as Rambold did.
The judge was immediately criticized for the sentence, which was handed down on Monday. The following day, he offered an additional justification that just dug a deeper hole. Though he admitted that a 14-year-old can’t give consent, Judge Baugh 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.”
It’s possible that what the judge was going for in this statement was the idea that statutory rape and other forms of sexual assault are crimes of a different nature. There might a kernel of truth in this idea, again because age of consent laws can criminalize truly consensual relationships. But that is not what happened in this case, and implying that Morales was not “really” raped because she didn’t end up with a black eye or broken rib is offensive.
On Wednesday, Judge Baugh 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.”
While the judge’s ultimate 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.