‘Party House’ Rapist Gets No Jail Time
A really strange case.
A strange report from the Washington Post, “Man who raped four teenagers gets no jail time, judge says: ‘Incarceration isn’t appropriate,’” surfaced near the top of one of my news aggregators. And it’s strange in a number of ways.
First, the headline is misleading.
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.
So, yes, Belter is a man. But he’s being sentenced for crimes committed at 16 or 17 (they don’t know?). So it makes no sense to promote the notion that this was a case of a grown man raping teenagers; he and his victims were contemporaries.
Second, the sequencing of the case itself seems unusual, indeed.
Belter pleaded guilty in 2019 to felony charges that included third-degree rape and attempted first-degree sexual abuse, as well as two misdemeanor charges of second-degree sexual abuse.
The crimes took place between February 2017 and August 2018 at Belter’s parents’ home in a wealthy neighborhood 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.
In 2018, Belter, then 17, was charged with first-degree rape, third-degree rape and sexual abuse for the assaults. As part of a plea deal, 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 not register as a sex offender.
Sheldon, who has since retired, predicted 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 was restricted. 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.”
No explanation is given for any of this. He pled guilty to felonies in 2019 but was put on “interim probation” under bizarre terms out of the medieval era that the judge quite reasonably presumed wouldn’t be followed? Two years later, he’s denied youthful offender status even though his offenses were committed when he was a youth? And then the same judge decided prison would be inappropriate?
No explanation is given for that, either:
Although Belter faced a maximum sentence of eight years in prison, Murphy concluded that jail time for the man “would be inappropriate” in a ruling that 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 jail time.
So, apparently, the judge is a religious nut that makes sentencing decisions based on superstition rather than the law. Yet, he simultaneously denied youthful offender status. It just makes no sense.
Further, we’re given no context at all for how this sentencing compares to that in the same jurisdiction for comparable crimes. Instead, we’re given this special pleading by an interested party:
Steven M. Cohen, an attorney 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.”
Is that really true? It’s possible, not least of which because a poor, Black defendant wouldn’t have access to high-quality legal counsel. But it’s a spurious charge to put into a news report without further reporting.
And, perhaps the strangest thing of all is this:
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 teen girls with alcohol and marijuana, according to state police. The three adults, who police say helped groom the women for sexual assaults by Belter, have pleaded not guilty in Lewiston Town Court to misdemeanor charges of child endangerment and unlawfully dealing with a child. None of them responded to requests for comment Wednesday.
So, three middle-aged adults not only supplied a “party house” for a teenaged boy but helped drug his victims? And they were allowed to plead to misdemeanor charges after multiple rapes?
UPDATE: To be clear, my main frustration here is with the reporting. This is essentially a local news story that I’m seeing for the first time because it’s in the Washington Post. If it’s important enough to be elevated to national coverage, it seems reasonable to expect treatment that answers obvious questions.
In terms of the legal system itself, aside from the long-established fact that wealthy defendants tend to get better results, some recent cases have indirectly shone a light on just how odd judges can be. A lot of them seem to be genuinely strange human beings. Which is problematic given their outsized power in our system.