The rush to condemnation

posted in: Intermountain News | 0


DISCLAIMER:  I have no personal knowledge or involvement with the Rambold this case other than what is being reported by the media, most of which originated with the Billings Gazette.   And I am neither defending nor condemning Yellowstone County District Judge G. Todd Baugh for his decisions.  I am only interested in what I may learn from him.

With headlines media coverage from Los Angeles to London and headlines such as:

Judge apologizes for remarks about teen rape victim

Activists to protest judge’s comments in Montana rape case

Montana judge apologizes for criticizing teen rape victim who committed suicide and

Montana judge defends decision to sentence teacher to just 30 days for sex with 14-year-old

One might conclude that Billings, Montana does not consider the rape of a 14 year old student is a serious offense.  These headlines, and others like them, galvanize people into action with a rush of condemnation, often overlooking or dismissing critical pieces of information.

There are two crucial elements of good decision-making that should precede taking action.  First, access to ALL relevant information – in this instance, that means reading the entire Gazette story rather than assuming the headline and first few paragraphs conveys all the necessary information.

Second, analysis of ALL relevant information – in this instance, that could possibly include setting aside preconceived ideas or beliefs and seeing how the information fits together as a whole.

How often are lives changed (or lost) because the decision-maker did not gain access to the relevant information or analyze what information was available objectively before rushing to condemn or judge?

Some have argued that the United States and its allies rushed to condemn Iraq for possessing weapons of mass destruction.  Today, the U.S. may be following a similar path in its condemnation of Syria for using chemical weapons against its own people.

But do our leaders have all of the relevant information to make an informed decision and have they viewed it objectively?  Or are they simply pursuing an agenda?

Let me be clear, I am not suggesting by any stretch of the imagination that it is ever okay for a teacher (or anyone else) to rape a 14 year old student; nor is it acceptable for Syria (or anyone) to use chemical weapons.  But there is almost always more to the story, a fact made famous by the legendary Paul Harvey.

And yes, there is more to the story out of Montana.  While the headlines proclaim that Judge Baugh sentenced a rapist to only 30 days in jail and the victim committed suicide.  It is only after reading the entire story that the entire story is revealed.  And for those unfamiliar with the nuances of America’s justice system it is easy to overlook important facts.

Stacey Dean Rambold was a business and technology teacher in Billings, Montana.  In 2008 it was alleged that he raped a 14 year old student.  He was suspended and later resigned from his teaching position and he was charged with three felony sex offenses.  In 2010, while the case was pending in criminal court, the victim committed suicide.

Instead of dismissing charges against Rambold following the victim’s death, prosecutors negotiated a “deferred prosecution agreement” with Rambold’s defense counsel.  As a result of this agreement the government was spared the burden of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt at trial (Rambold was required to sign an admission of guilt) AND they could compel Rambold to complete sex offender treatment.

Although the specific terms of the agreement were not included in the news story, it is apparent that Rambold was not required to be incarcerated.  For his part, Rambold would be spared the indignity of a criminal conviction and registration as a sexual offender if he complied with the terms of the agreement.

In other words, the state was okay with Rambold not being incarcerated, or having to register as a sex offender, or having a felony conviction – as long as he completed a sex offender treatment program.

In December 2012 Rambold was terminated from a sex offender program when the staff determined that he violated program rules.  He began treatment with a different program but prosecutors sought enforcement of the “deferred prosecution agreement” for his failure to complete the first program.

That is what led to the sentencing hearing on Monday.  Because he violated the treatment program’s rules and was terminated from the program Rambold was sentenced to 30 days in jail, the felony conviction was entered on the record, he was placed on probation, and is now required to register as a sex offender.

While it may factually be correct that Rambold was only sentenced to 30 days for the rape of a 14 year old student, it does not convey what actually occurred.

But that is not headline material.  It does not compel a rush to judgment or necessitate immediate action.  In much the same way that knowing Iraq once had weapons of mass destruction but did not possess them in 2003 would have negated the urgency for the U.S. and its allies to overthrow Saddam Hussein’s regime.

Whether it is a decision to invade another country or to commit someone to prison, context matters when lives will be forever changed – and this story from Montana provides a prime example of the importance of information, and the willingness to use it, in decision-making.

Unfortunately for Judge Baugh, he said some really stupid things that also made for great headlines.  As is frequently the case, there is a time, a place, and a manner to do things.  There is a time to apologize.  There is a place to apologize.  There is a manner to apologize.  Judge Baugh failed at all three.

This role reversal offers an opportunity for those involved in the justice system (by that I mean it is usually the defendant who say stupid things and not the judge).  I suggest that there are three lessons that can be learned from the Montana story:

  1. Seek first to understand: decision-making requires access to information and the willingness to look beyond the headlines, especially when it contradicts a belief or assumed facts because the rush to condemn a man will inevitably lead to bad decisions.  The “rest of the story” is just as important as the headline and the best decisions are made only after being fully informed and exploring whatever alternatives may be available.
  2. Focus on what matters:  in this instance, what matters is that Thurgold be held accountable for his actions.  Based on results, in 2010 what mattered was that he acknowledge his crime and that he complete treatment.   Today what matters is that he is held accountable for violating the first program’s rules but Judge Baugh’s comments during sentencing were a distraction.  In essence, the story became about Judge Baugh and not about the rape or rule violation.  His comments diverted the focus away from Thurgold and the deferred prosecution agreement, rendering it as little more than a footnote.
  3. Shut-up, listen, and learn: sometimes, talking just makes it worse.  In this instance, Judge Baugh’s attempted apology only made it worse.  Rather than listening and learning from the misstatements on the bench, he tried explaining and defending – neither of which is conducive to learning or hearing, and both of which only compound the problem.

Do you have ALL the information necessary to make an informed decision?