Several hundred people crowded onto the Yellowstone County Courthouse lawn for about two hours last Thursday seeking to oust Judge G. Todd Baugh for his comments and subsequent apology in a rape case.
Cherise Moralez was a 14-year-old rape victim who committed suicide and whose teacher, Stacey Rambold, had been disciplined before for having sex with his students, according to news reports.
In addition to supporting Moralez’s family, some protesters sought to let the nation know that Billings will not tolerate what it views as unacceptable leniency and victim-shaming comments from its senior elected government officials.
“I think the sentence was very unfair. The man who was convicted had been proven to have committed the crime. What the judge said about her personally was inflammatory. He recanted the comment about her age, but still I think he needs to be disbarred from the legal profession and removed from office,” said Dorothy Gray, 75, a retired licensed practical nurse who said she knew Moralez’s mother, Auleia Hanlon, through her nursing work. Ms. Gray held a sign on which she had written “Justice for Cherise.”
Protesters made colorful signs reflecting their objections to Baugh’s sentencing decision, which many said was unreasonably light. The judge had sentenced Moralez’s convicted attacker, a former Billings Senior High School teacher, to 15 years in prison, with all but 30 days suspended. A Billings legal expert said that Judge Baugh applied to the sentence a previous plea deal Rambold had made with prosecutors.
In a previous hearing, said the expert, Rambold had admitted to raping Moralez in exchange for a lesser sentence. That the lesser sentence was only 30 days, cut down from the original 15-year sentence, was the impetus for public outcry. Calls to Judge Baugh’s office to request comments about Billings’ reaction to his sentencing decision according to prior plea deals were not returned as of press time.
Later that night, the Cable News Network reported that Judge Baugh thought the suspension of more than the mandatory minimum (two years) for rape made his sentence potentially illegal. He scheduled a hearing for this Friday to determine this point of legality. A Billings lawyer who did not wish to be identified said the county attorney, Scott Twito, had been analyzing the case in a review that started after the Aug. 29 protest.
A statement released on Aug. 28 from School District 2 Superintendent Terry Bouck indicated that the district supported the county attorney’s previously requested sentencing recommendation of 20 years with 10 suspended and that Mr. Bouck personally pressured Rambold to surrender his teaching license.
Mr. Bouck wrote, “From my review of the newspaper accounts and the investigation materials, I find that the District reacted quickly and appropriately once it found out about the relationship. The District was devastated when some time later the student committed suicide.”
After that, the student’s parents filed a claim against the teacher and the district, which was eventually settled by the district’s insurance carrier. Previous news reports indicated the family received $91,000.
The directors of two progressive organizations led the discussions during the protest and invited participants to a microphone set up in front of the crowd, noting that the judge’s comments about the sexually assaulted deceased teenager focused national attention on Billings.
Marian Bradley, head of National Organization for Women, Billings Chapter; Sheena Rice and Kate Olp, with the Montana Organizing Project, said the national spotlight shone on Billings.
Ms. Rice said, “The world is watching us. We have National Public Radio, we have CNN, we have Arista from New York here today.” A protester, Jane Orth, said, “It was all over the national news. I saw the petition on the national Headline News.”
The petition gathered signatures via Twitter with the hashtag “#Justice4cherise” and the website “www.moveon.org,” said Rice.
Another protester, Rich Clawson (no relation to Billings Outpost columnist Roger Clawson), said, “I just could not believe what he said. The people who should have been defending her dropped the ball.” He said the comments from Baugh influenced him to attend the protest and to urge the judge to resign. Publicly asking the judge to resign, Ms. Bradley spoke for almost a minute and a half in front of the crowd.
“We must get Judge Baugh to resign now. He took the burden of responsibility off the shoulders of the perpetrator and placed it on the shoulders of a suffering child. This is not OK. I have been talking to the state attorney’s office. This type of thing is not in our town”, said Ms. Bradley. A retired art teacher and self-proclaimed longtime protester, Kate Morris, said, ”That man was a predator; he’d been written up before. It’s just like the Catholic priests. He was allowed to stay in a position where he could abuse. Judge Baugh victimized that woman one more time with his sentence.”
Shouts from the crowd reflected the views of Bradley and other protesters. ”Resign, Baugh,” people shouted. In order to get Baugh out of his seat, a recall accusing him of criminal action would have to be presented to the Judicial Standards Board and then prosecuted in the Montana Supreme Court. Such actions would drag on long past 2014, the anticipated year in which Baugh might run for re-election, despite his advanced age. The crowd clearly stood not with Baugh, but with the victim.
They yelled from the back, “Justice, we love you, we support you.” And finally, somebody screamed, “Boys are also abused.” Ms. Rice listened closely to what the crowd said, stood squarely at the microphone again, and said, “We are here to demand justice. We will not stand for victim-blaming language anymore.”
Another representative from the MOP, Kate Olp, said, “It is not OK to stand in ignorance about the realities of sexual assault.” Protester Debbie Ferguson, 58, who attended the protest with her daughter, Terry, 28, held up high a sign upon which she had written, “I stand with the victim.” Ms. Ferguson said, “She doesn’t have her voice anymore, so this judge thinks she had some kind of say. A teacher took advantage of a young girl and got away with it. His apology was not sincere at all - there was no justice for this girl.”
Ms. Rice called for all in the crowd to bow their heads in silence for two minutes to noiselessly ask for justice and to empathize with the victim’s family. Sobs and sniffles could be heard, along with a few beeps and whistles from cell phones. Everyone looked respectfully down. One protester began to cry and walked away after saying that Judge Baugh took away her child two years ago.
About 40 people lingered at the protest site until a few minutes after 1 p.m., kneeling in order to write comforting messages to the memory of Cherise. On a three-part whiteboard entitled, “Justice for Cherise,” a teacher from Hardin wrote, “You will not be forgotten.”A substitute teacher wrote, “This will not happen ever again.”
Others wrote, “We love you and support you.” Mr. Clawson, 68, who is a retired designer, said, “We are the moral gatekeepers. This flies in the face of what Billings has come to be.”
He added, “This ain’t Missoula and this ain’t Bozeman. This is Billings.”