A New York man who pleaded guilty to rape and sexual abuse for assaulting four teenage girls during parties at his parents’ home will not face jail time after a judge Tuesday sentenced him to eight years’ probation.
Niagara County Court Judge Matthew J. Murphy III said he “agonized” over the case of 20-year-old Christopher Belter, who was accused of committing the crimes when he was 16 or 17.
Belter pleaded guilty in 2019 to felony charges that included third-degree rape and attempted first-degree sexual abuse, as well as two misdemeanour charges of second-degree sexual abuse.
Although Belter faced a maximum sentence of eight years in prison, Murphy concluded that time behind bars for the man “would be inappropriate.” The ruling shocked the courtroom.
“I’m not ashamed to say that I actually prayed over what is the appropriate sentence in this case because there was great pain.
There was great harm. There were multiple crimes committed in the case,” Murphy said, according to WKBW. “It seems to me that a sentence that involves incarceration or partial incarceration isn’t appropriate, so I am going to sentence you to probation.”
Belter, of Lewiston, N.Y., will have to register as a sex offender as part of his sentence. Murphy told Belter in court that the probation sentence would be “like a sword hanging over your head for the next eight years.” The judge did not elaborate on why he did not impose prison time.
Steven M. Cohen, a lawyer for one of the victims, denounced the judge’s sentencing, saying to reporters Tuesday, “Justice was not done here.”
He told The Washington Post on Wednesday that his client, who was joined by some of the other victims in the courtroom, was “deeply disappointed” in the sentencing.
“My client threw up in the ladies room following the sentencing,” Cohen said. “If Chris Belter was not a White defendant from a rich and influential family, in my experience … he would surely have been sentenced to prison.”
Barry N. Covert, Belter’s attorney, declined to comment. At the sentencing hearing, the defence attorney said that Belter regretted what he did as a teen.
“He is tremendously remorseful for what he has done,” Covert said, according to the Buffalo News.
“There are clients who are never able to empathize with their victims no matter how much counselling they receive. Chris isn’t one of them.”
The crimes took place between February 2017 and August 2018 at Belter’s parents’ home in a wealthy neighbourhood of Lewiston, a few miles outside Niagara Falls.
During that time, three 16-year-old girls and a 15-year-old girl were assaulted in four separate incidents, according to the judge.
The “party house” label at Belter’s family home was fueled by his mother, Tricia Vacanti, now 50; his stepfather, Gary Sullo, 56; and Jessica M. Long, 42, a family friend, who allegedly supplied teenage girls with alcohol and marijuana, according to state police.
The three adults, who police say helped groom the girls for sexual assault by Belter, have pleaded not guilty in Lewiston Town Court to misdemeanour charges of child endangerment and unlawfully dealing with a child. None of them responded to requests for comment Wednesday.
“It’s not a party house case. It was a house of sexual assault,” Peter M. Wydysh, the assistant district attorney in Niagara County, said during the sentencing. “That is what happened there. That is not something we should look past.”
The fourth teen who was assaulted by Belter gave what Murphy described as a “gripping statement” of how she focused on a plant while she was being raped.
“During the rape, he told her to stop being such a baby. She focused her attention on the leaves of the plant as she cried during the attack,” Murphy wrote, according to the News. “The Defendant told her that, if she stopped resisting, it wouldn’t hurt as much.”
In 2018, Belter, then 17, was charged with first-degree rape, third-degree rape and sexual abuse for the assaults. As part of a deal with the prosecution, Belter pleaded guilty in 2019 to lesser felony charges of third-degree rape and attempted first-degree sexual abuse.
The judge at the time, Sara Sheldon, placed Belter on two years’ interim probation and gave him the chance to apply for youthful offender status in his sentencing, which would have lessened the maximum prison time and allowed him to avoid registering as a sex offender.
Sheldon, who has since retired, predicted that Belter would struggle to comply with the restrictions placed on him in his initial probation — and she was proved right.
Belter acknowledged in court last month that he had violated his probation by installing software on his personal computer that allowed him to view pornography, which he was not permitted to do.
Belter had told his probation officer that he had been watching porn since he was 7 years old, the News reported.
When Murphy denied him youthful offender status and ruled last month that Belter would be sentenced as an adult, the judge wrote that the 20-year-old had “recently been treated with medication to lessen his libido.”
“The assumption when Judge Murphy denied youthful offender status was that Chris Belter would receive prison time,” Cohen told The Post. “There were absolutely no consequences for the defendant’s repeated violations of Judge Sheldon’s terms of probation.”
Before the sentence was announced, Belter told the courtroom that he had “come to feel deep shame and regret my actions,” according to WKBW.
He addressed the victims in attendance, saying, “None of you deserved to be in this situation.”
“I hope each of you could close that wound I gashed,” he said. “I know, though, that a scar will remain that will serve as a reminder of the evil of that night.”
Belter is due back in court on Dec 3 for a determination of the level of his sex-offender classification, Cohen said.