Criminal Justice

Did privilege help law partner's son avoid prison in sexual attacks? Lawyer for victim thinks so

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A judge in Niagara County, New York, sentenced a 20-year-old man to eight years of probation Tuesday following his guilty plea to third-degree rape and attempted sexual abuse.

Judge Matthew J. Murphy III said a prison sentence “would be inappropriate” for the youth, Christopher J. Belter, report the Buffalo News, the New York Times, WKBW and the Washington Post.

The crimes were committed at the Lewiston, New York, home of Belter’s family in a wealthy neighborhood when he was 16 and 17 years old.

According to the Buffalo News, the sentence “stunned Belter’s victims and outraged the lawyer for one of them.” The lawyer, Steven M. Cohen, told the Buffalo News that the sentence was unjust.

Cohen elaborated in statements to the Washington Post and the New York Times.

“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,” he said.

Belter’s father is a senior partner at Goldberg Segalla, a large law firm, according to the New York Times.

Belter was initially charged with first-degree rape, third-degree rape and sexual abuse for allegedly assaulting three 16-year-old girls and a 15-year-old girl. Belter pleaded guilty in a plea deal in 2019 to third-degree rape and attempted first-degree sexual abuse, the articles report.

Belter’s home was known as a party house, although prosecutors said that term minimized the impact on the victims. Belter’s mother, Tricia Vacanti, was accused of supplying teenagers at the home with alcohol and marijuana. Belter’s stepfather, Gary Sullo, and a family friend were accused of serving alcohol to teens. All three have been charged with misdemeanors and have pleaded not guilty.

Vacanti and Belter’s father, Christopher Belter Sr., are among the defendants in a civil lawsuit filed by one of the victims, the Niagara Gazette previously reported.

When Belter pleaded guilty in 2019, a prior judge gave him two years of interim probation and offered the possibility of youthful offender status if he complied with conditions.

That judge noted that Belter was a “rich white kid” but said she also had given interim probation to young Black and Native American sex offenders, according to prior coverage by the Lockport Journal.

Murphy rejected sentencing Belter as a youthful offender last month after Belter admitted installing software on his personal computer that allowed him to bypass a block on pornography. Belter told his probation officer that he has been watching pornography since age 7.

Murphy said in that ruling that Belter had “recently been treated with medication to lessen his libido.”

Murphy turns 70 next month, which is a mandatory retirement age for judges in the state. He was elected to the bench in 2007 and reelected in 2017.

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