This week, a Montana judge found himself having to apologize after implying that a teenage victim of sexual assault was complicit in her own rape—all this as he slapped her adult assailant gently on the wrist.
Montana District Judge G. Todd Baugh handed down a 30-day sentence to 54-year-old former high school teacher Stacey Rambold, who admitted to a felony charge of nonconsensual sex in 2008 with Cherice Morales, a 14-year-old student.
Rambold landed back in court after breaking the terms of a plea deal that would have closed his case if he completed sex offender treatment. During the intervening years while the case was pending, just a few weeks before her 17th birthday, Cherice took her own life. Her mother testified at the hearing that her daughter’s rape had been a major reason for her suicide.
But that didn’t stop Judge Baugh from concluding during sentencing that Cherice was “as much in control of the situation” as the teacher. And that the teen was “older than her chronological age.”
So this week’s letter is addressed to the judge, to help clear up a few things he doesn’t seem to understand.
Dear Judge Baugh:
It’s me, Melissa.
I’d like to think it’s a safe assumption that, of all people, a district court judge in Montana is intimately familiar with the laws in Montana. You know, since it’s your job and all. But your statements in court on Monday suggest that maybe you could use a bit of a refresher, so allow me to help you out.
According to Montana law, a victim is incapable of giving consent if the victim is less than 16 years old. Incapable of giving consent. Because, Judge Baugh, a victim less than 16 years old—in this case a 14-year-old—is a child. A child, like 44% of those who are victims of rape.
And the law codifies our collective understanding that children deserve special protections because their youth and immaturity makes them inherently dis-empowered in a sexual, as you call it, “situation”—with an adult. Which means Cherice, this child, was in no way capable of controlling or consenting to the actions of the grown man who had sex with her.
She was no more able to prevent her rape than she was to somehow age herself beyond the 14 years she was at the time. So your statement that she was older than her chronological age—along with implicating her as a participant in her own assault—amounts to excusing the crimes of an adult while laying the blame on the child that he victimized.
That child, Cherice, isn’t here anymore to speak for herself. But if she were she’d likely tell you that it’s this kind of shame—the idea that it is somehow our fault—that keeps so many survivors, including me, silent after their rape. And makes survivors four times as likely to contemplate the drastic action Cherice ultimately chose—to end their own lives.
Judge Baugh, it’s bad enough that, thanks to you, an admitted child rapist will be a free man by the end of the month. But the day after the sentencing, you defended your decision by saying, “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.”
If I didn’t know any better I’d think you were exchanging your judicial robes for a Republican seat in Congress. Because you’re sounding a lot like former senatorial candidate Todd “Legitimate Rape” Akin—before his comments got him voted out of office. So, let me remind you of a couple of the same things I reminded him.
First? Rape is rape. Full stop.
Second? You hold an elected office, too.
Which means that as easily as you’ve been re-elected for the last 30 years, you can just as easily be voted out. And maybe then you’ll finally understand consent. When you lose your judicial seat with the consent of the voters who put you there.
Correction: The broadcast version of this letter incorrectly stated that Todd Akin was a former U.S. Senator. The text of the letter has been corrected above.