Content note: Racial and sexual violence and slurs, victim-blaming.
Fifty years ago today, as hundreds of thousands gathered in Washington DC for history’s most celebrated civil rights march, a few dozen people filed into a Maryland courtroom to hear a verdict and a sentence.
William Zantzinger, a 24-year-old tobacco farmer from a wealthy white family, was the defendant. On February 8 of that year Zantzinger had gone out partying with his wife and friends. At dinner, drunk and aggressive, he struck — “tapped,” he would claim at trial — several black waitresses with a toy wooden cane he carried with him.
As the party moved on to a formal ball at an exclusive hotel, Zantzinger’s mood worsened. He called one waitress a nigger as he struck her with his stick, then demanded that Hattie Carroll, a 51-year-old barmaid, bring him a bourbon. When she took too long in preparing it, he called her a black bitch and struck her on the neck, once, with the cane.
She gave him his drink.
Within a few minutes she began to feel dizzy and sick. Her arm went numb, she collapsed, and she was taken to the hospital. Carroll, the mother of eleven children, died of a brain hemorrhage at nine o’clock the following morning.
Zantzinger was arrested for murder, but the charge was reduced to manslaughter and assault because of ambiguities as to the precise medical role his attack played in Carroll’s death. His attorneys succeeded in moving the case out of the city of Baltimore to Hagerstown, Maryland, where he was tried before a panel of three judges in August.
Fifty years ago today those three judges found Zantzinger guilty of manslaughter and sentenced him to six months in jail, with the sentence deferred until after the end of the tobacco harvest.
• • •
In the fall of 2007 Billings, Montana high school teacher Stacey Dean Rambold sexually assaulted a ninth-grade girl in his school, fourteen-year-old Cherice Moralez. In April 2008 Moralez told a church group leader about the assaults, which had continued for several months, and Rambold was arraigned in October of that year.
As the case made its way through the courts, Moralez was subjected to embarrassment, harassment, and humiliation. In February 2010, with Rambold still awaiting trial, she took her own life. She was sixteen years old.
The death of Cherice Moralez complicated the effort to bring Rambold to justice, and in 2010, over the objections of Moralez’s family, prosecutors cut a deal. Rambold admitted guilt to a single count of felony sexual assault and pledged to enroll in a three-year sex offender treatment program. If he completed it, he would not face jail time.
Rambold never completed the treatment program. He started skipping meetings a year ago, and was terminated from the program in November after his treatment provider learned that he had violated a rule against unsupervised contact with minors and failed to inform counselors about a sexual relationship he had entered into.
Under the terms of Rambold’s original plea agreement his 2010 confession was admissible as evidence in court, so gaining a conviction after he violated the treatment agreement was a simple matter. Prosecutors asked that he be given ten years.
On Monday the judge gave him thirty days.
In handing down his ruling Judge G. Todd Baugh declared that although Cherice Moralez was just fourteen when the 49-year-old Rambold assaulted her, she was “as much in control of the situation” as he was. Moralez, he said, was “older than her chronological age.” Rambold’s violations of his treatment agreement, Baugh said, were not serious enough to warrant a lengthy sentence.
As Flavia Dzodan wrote this morning, the judge’s declaration that Moralez, a ninth-grader who killed herself at sixteen, was “as much in control” of her sexual assault as the 49-year-old teacher who perpetrated it is a claim with powerful racial precedent.
The insistence that girls of color who experience sexual abuse are precocious temptresses is one that we’ve seen used again and again to defend or exonerate their abusers.
It’s fifty years later. The fight isn’t over.
Note | I gave serious thought to the question of whether to include Cherice Moralez’s name in this piece, weighing the value of remembrance against the importance of privacy. Her name has appeared regularly in news coverage of the events that followed her suicide, and in researching this piece I searched for guidance about her family’s wishes. I found no indication that they prefer that it not be published.
Update | Judge Baugh defended his courtroom comments in an interview with a local newspaper yesterday. “I think that people have in mind that this was some violent, forcible, horrible rape,” he said, “it wasn’t this forcible beat-up rape.” Baugh conceded that “obviously” a fourteen-year-old can’t consent to sex.
In his interview, Baugh also addressed concerns about the sentence he handed down, in which he suspended all but thirty days of a fifteen-year term. “I think what people are seeing is a sentence for rape of 30 days. Obviously on the face of it, if you look at it that way, it’s crazy,” Baugh said. “No wonder people are upset. I’d be upset, too, if that happened.”
But that’s exactly what did happen. Yes, Rambold wound up in Baugh’s courtroom because of his failure to complete sex offender treatment, but the plea deal he struck in the original case was a result of the death by suicide of the complainant and sole witness to his crime. As prosecutors said at the time, they made the deal because they didn’t believe they could get a conviction otherwise. Their hands were tied.
Baugh’s hands were not tied. He had in front of him on Monday a confessed sexual predator who had failed to abide by even the absurdly lax terms of his original sentence. Baugh could have put him in prison for years. He chose not to. He chose not to, by his own account, in part because he regarded Rambold’s victim as complicit in the crime that led to her suicide, and because he does not consider the sexual assault of a ninth-grader by a 49-year-old teacher as having the seriousness of “some violent, forcible, horrible rape.”
No wonder people are upset. No wonder.
August 29 Update | Facing a growing outcry and an upcoming re-election fight, Judge Baugh apologized yesterday for his comments on the Rambold case, calling them “stupid and wrong.” In a letter to the Billings Gazette, he said that he was “not sure just what I was attempting to say” in his “references to the victim’s age and control,” but that his remarks had been “demeaning of all women, not what I believe and irrelevant to the sentencing.” He did not, however, apologize for the sentence itself, likening the circumstances that put Rambold in his court on Monday to a minor probation violation. The Yellowstone County district attorney said yesterday that he would be reviewing the sentence for a possible appeal, but told the Gazette that the scope of his authority to contest the judge’s decision was limited.
Activists will be staging a protest outside Baugh’s courthouse at noon today.
Second August 29 Update | Here’s the Facebook page for today’s courthouse protest.
Third August 29 Update | It’s become increasingly clear that Baugh’s apology was a very narrow one, restricted only to his remarks on Moralez’s “chronological age” and his claim that she was “in control” of the situation. In an interview with a local CNN affiliate that came after the release of yesterday’s apology letter, Baugh again displayed a caricatured understanding of the nature of rape. “It was not a violent, forcible, beat-the-victim rape, like you see in the movies,” he said. “But it was nonetheless a rape. It was a troubled young girl, and he was a teacher. And this should not have occurred.”
Two things need to be said about this quote. First, the “beat-the-victim” rape that “you see in the movies” has never been the most common kind of rape. Most rapes are committed by friends or acquaintances of the victim, and only a minority involve physical violence beyond the brutality inherent in the act itself. To imply that rapes that do not involve battery are not violent, and to suggest that such rapes are somehow the standard against other acts of sexual assault should be measured by, is a mind-boggling display of professional incompetence for a man in Baugh’s position.
Beyond that, it’s important to note that this hierarchy of rape is directly related to the comments about Cherice Moralez’s culpability that Baugh now disavows. The essence of rape is the denial of consent. That’s what defines the crime. And the premise behind statutory rape laws, the reason that such laws exist, is the understanding that a child is not legally capable of granting an adult consent to sexual contact. Statutory rape laws exist to preclude exactly the kind of “rape-rape” parsing that Judge Baugh has been engaging in all week. That Baugh doesn’t understand this, even now, is again evidence of not just moral obtuseness but also profound incompetence.