On Tuesday, a Niagara County judge decided not to give 20-year-old Christopher Belter any prison time after he pleaded guilty in 2019 to raping four teenage girls. Judge Matthew J. Murphy III, who asked reporters at an earlier hearing not to publish Belter’s name despite the fact that the case was already a public story, told the court that he “agonized” over the decision but ultimately came to the conclusion that sending Belter to prison “would be inappropriate.” Instead of prison time, Murphy sentenced Belter to eight years’ probation, which he told the defendant would be “like a sword hanging over your head for the next eight years.”
Belter’s case stems from four separate assaults he committed in 2017 and 2018 at his parents’ house in a wealthy part of Lewiston, a small town near Niagara Falls. According to local media, his home was known as a “party house,” and his mother, stepfather, and a family friend have also been charged with supplying alcohol and weed to three of the teen girls Belter assaulted. The three adults face over 50 criminal charges combined, though their trial was postponed last year and has yet to happen. Before the postponement, their defense attorneys had a judge review two of the victims’ mental health records, arguing that their underage drinking made them unreliable witnesses.
In 2018, Belter was indicted on felony charges of third-degree rape and attempted first-degree sexual abuse and pleaded guilty the following year. Because he was 16 and 17 at the time of the assaults, he was placed on a two-year interim probation that, if completed successfully, would get him “youthful offender status,” a sentencing option designed to help young offenders keep criminal convictions off their personal records. If granted, the status would have given Belter a lower maximum prison sentence and would also allow him not to register as a sex offender.
But in October, Murphy, who inherited the case from the now-retired judge who initially issued the probation, ruled that Belter would be sentenced as an adult, having broken his probation by downloading software that would let him watch porn. “We now know from his documented failure to follow the rules imposed by the court about abstinence from pornography that this defendant does not hesitate to ignore the rules when they compete with his own carnal appetites,” the judge said. However, he continued, “perhaps if the defendant is continued on probation and sex offender counseling for another eight years, the risk to reoffend will be eliminated.”
Prosecutor Peter Wydysh said during the hearing that the case was not, as local news outlets had started to call it, a “party house case” but one involving a “house of sexual assault.” “That is what happened there,” he said. “That is not something we should look past.” Steven M. Cohen, an attorney for one of the victims, told the Washington Post that the decision to sentence Belter as an adult initially seemed like a promising indication he’d get prison time. Cohen told reporters on Tuesday that “justice was not done here” and maintained “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.”
As for Murphy, he declined to explain why he felt a prison sentence would be so inappropriate. He told Belter in court that he’d “prayed over what is the appropriate sentence in this case because there was great pain.”
Belter will still need to register as a sex offender, and he’s set to return to court on December 2 for a hearing determining what kind of sex offender he’ll need to register as.
After the trial, one of the victims, referred to as MM in court filings, told CBS News that it felt like she “was being victimized all over again” when the sentencing was read. “It’s just going to make him more comfortable doing this in the future,” she said. “This is a pattern. He will offend again. Another girl can be a victim of his any day now.”