Updated: Nov 23, 2021
Photo Credit: Phillip Gambini, Niagara Gazette
November 22, 2021. Time and time again, we see women treated as second class citizens. White men, most often of privilege, looking out for each other, keeping women and people of color oppressed.
Nothing more telling than the recent story of Christopher Belter – the man who admitted to raping and sexually abusing four minors and was only sentenced to probation.
Probation. And not once, but twice! Yes, he violated the original probation and still only received probation.
Christopher Belter was 16 or 17 at the time of the offenses, which occurred in 2017 and 2018. During that period, he would hold parties at his family’s mansion in the suburbs of Buffalo, New York, ply his victims with alcohol, marijuana, and Adderall, allegedly supplied by his mother and stepfather, who are facing their own charges – albeit only misdemeanors. And then he would rape his victims.
Belter was charged with first-degree rape, third-degree rape and sexual abuse for the assaults. This indicates that one or more of the victims likely was unconscious at the time of the rape. In 2019, he made a deal and plead guilty to lesser felonies - third-degree rape and attempted first-degree sexual abuse.
In most instances, a predator like Belter would be tried as an adult. Even if tried as a 16 or 17-year-old adolescent in NY, Belter would have been required to register as a sex offender. It should go without saying that these crimes are serious sexual offenses that have permanently injured and damaged his 15 and 16-year-old victims.
Nonetheless, the judge at the time, Sara Sheldon, placed Belter on two years’ interim probation with sentencing to follow, which provided Belter the opportunity to apply for youthful offender status, thereby lessening or eliminating the prison time and keeping him from having to register as a sex offender.
Incredible, particularly given that the judge stated that she doubted Belter would be able to comply with the restrictions she imposed, including prohibiting Belter from viewing pornography, which he has admitted he has been doing since he was seven-years-old.
What was Judge Sheldon thinking? Hoping her suspicions were wrong and wanting to give a criminal who was a minor at the time of the offenses, a second chance? Swayed by Belter’s race and wealth? The influence of his mother (a lawyer), his stepfather (a wealthy CEO of a manufacturing business) and/or father (a prominent lawyer who litigates in the community)? Given the deferred sentencing, it appears she wanted to give the minor a second chance.
By the time Belter’s violation returned to court, Judge Sheldon, who’s prediction was correct, had retired. Cue Judge Mathew J. Murphy, III. The son of an 18-year NYS Assemblyman Matthew J. Murphy, Jr. and brother of John Murphy, the voice of the Buffalo Bills NFL Football team. His privilege certainly runs deep.
Once assigned the case, Judge Murphy immediately issued a gag order prohibiting the media from releasing Belter’s name. This was the first indication of Judge Murphy’s bias – it made zero sense otherwise as Belter’s identity had already been widely published, and the Judge lacked the legal authority to issue the order.
Last month, Judge Murphy denied Belter youthful offender status as a result of the probation violation and noted:
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 appetite. . . . The defendant has made progress and perhaps if the defendant is continued on probation and sex offender counseling for another eight years, the risk to reoffend will be eliminated. But, in the meantime, the Defendant still posts an ‘above average risk’ to reoffend even after two years of counseling.
More likely than not that Belter would rape again. Even after two years of counseling and taking medication to reduce his libido.
Yet last week, a mere month after acknowledging the risk that Belter would rape again, Judge Murphy, a nearly 70-year-old white man facing mandatory retirement next month, stated that, after praying on it, he determined that incarceration “is not appropriate” and sentenced Belter to eight years of probation. No further explanation was given. The Judge merely said that probation would “be a sword hanging over your head for the next eight years.”
Like it was the first time Belter was given probation?! No! This sentence marks Belter’s third chance.
Even knowing it was more likely than not that Belter would rape again?
And in that moment, Belters four victims were victimized again. The message to them clear – their trauma and they themselves are not nearly significant enough to warrant sending Belter, a more-than-likely repeat offender, to prison.
Minors at the time of the rapes and sexual assaults. Girls whose lives are forever changed, and not for the better. All made so much worse by the sentence imposed by Judge Murphy. Not even the prosecutor, who failed to make a recommendation on sentencing, a best practice in sexual assault and rape cases, did anything to stop this secondary victimization.
So why the flip-flop? Clearly, Judge Murphy had more sympathy for Belter than for his victims. Did Judge Murphy identify with Belter? Could Judge Murphy not possibly do anything that would further ruin Belter’s white, privileged life? Jose Rosario would likely tell you that the answers to these questions are yes.
In 2013, Jose Rosario allegedly drugged and raped a woman who was unconscious and, like Belter, was charged with first degree rape. When Rosario pleaded to the lesser offense of first-degree sexual abuse, he made a comment that indicated that he may not have known his victim was unconscious and unable to consent. Not only did Judge Murphy sentence Rosario to seven years in prison plus 15 years of supervised release, Judge Murphy failed to inform Rosario that he had an affirmative defense available to him – not knowing the victim was unconscious.
As a result of Judge Murphy’s error, the Appellate Division reversed Rosario’s conviction and ordered a new trial. Rosario pleaded guilty to second-degree assault before trial, and Judge Murphy sentenced Rosario to three years in prison plus an additional five years of supervised release. At that time, Rosario was released as he had already served five years in prison.
One instance. One victim. No probation violation. Yet a very different result for Jose Rosario.
And the widely-publicized attempts to say that Judge Murphy, the District Attorney of Niagara County from 1992-2007, had only been overseeing criminal cases since 2016 are not only irrelevant and clearly do not excuse the Judge’s inability to perform his duties as a jurist, they are false. Judge Murphy issued his erroneous decision in the Rosario case on April 27, 2015. And he was a life-long prosecutor, having worked at the US Department of Justice from 1979-1986. Sounds like damage control to me.
So now what?
The prosecutor cannot appeal the sentence.
One component of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) provides grants to improve the criminal justice response to violence against women and train court officials to “treat domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking as serious violations of criminal law requiring the coordinated involvement of the entire criminal justice system.” Clearly, Judge Murphy did not attend any such trainings held by the New York State Unified Court System, which received a total of nearly $1.3 million in federal grants in 2017 and 2019.
Earlier this year, the US House of Representatives approved the reauthorization of VAWA, which expired in 2018. The Senate has yet to do the same. It should do so immediately, and it should expand the VAWA to prevent the events that happened in Niagara from ever happening again. The misogyny and white male privilege must stop, and the bad actors will not do so until forced.
Unfortunately, the reauthorization of VAWA will not undo the damage caused by Judge Murphy or minimize the risk Belter poses to women. However, Belter is scheduled to return to Court on December 1st for a hearing to determine the level of his required sex offender classification (one being the lowest risk, and three being the highest risk).
In most instances, Level three sex offenders, who are required to register for life, are the only sex offenders that appear on national and state-level registries. In light of the real risk (noted by both Judges in the case) that Belter will rape again, he must be classified as a level three offender. Otherwise, he could move out of the area and the threat he poses would be undetectable by the women in his next community.
Given Judge Murphy’s clear bias in favor of Belter coupled with Murphy’s imminent retirement (thereby having nothing to lose), Hon. Kevin M. Carter, Administrative Judge for the 8th Judicial District, which includes Niagara County, should remove Judge Murphy from the case and assign the determination of the appropriate level of sex offender classification to an unbiased judge.
I strongly encourage each of you to reach out to Judge Carter to encourage this outcome, as I did today. Judge Carter can be reached through his clerk, Brandon Portis, bportis@NYcourts.gov, and by copying District Executive Andrew Eisenberg (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Deputy District Executive Tasha Moore (email@example.com). The phone number is 716-845-2505, and you ask to speak with Mr. Portis.
The lives of countless, unidentified women are dependent upon it.