Matthew J. Murphy III, a judge working in the Niagara County Court system in New York state said he “prayed” Wednesday before deciding jail wasn’t an “appropriate” place for a now 20-year-old man who raped and sexually assaulted four teenage girls when he was 16 and 17.
“I’m not ashamed to say that I actually prayed over what is the appropriate sentence in this case because there was great pain,” Murphy said before handing down a sentence of eight years of probation to 20-year-old Christopher J. Belter who was convicted of rape, sexual abuse and sexual assault against the teenage girls in his Lewiston home, WKBW reported. “There was great harm. There were multiple crimes committed in the case.”
Murphy had previously decided that Belter would not be tried as a youthful offender, although his crimes were committed when he was 16 and 17. Still, he said he “agonized” over the appropriate punishment for Belter.
“It seems to me that a sentence that involves incarceration or partial incarceration isn’t appropriate,” Murphy said, according to The New York Times.
The judge’s decision has angered at least one of Belter’s victims and sparked outrage from some on social media.
“The second that I heard the word probation, I honestly just broke down. I didn’t hear one word said after that. I was shaking with anger and disgust,” a victim identified by her initials M.M. told "Inside Edition."
“I did have to run to the bathroom after the courtroom closed,” she added.
Court records cited by The New York Times said in August 2018 that M.M. was at Belter’s house one night with his sister when he invited her into his room, threw her onto his bed, pulled off her clothes then attacked her. She was 16 at the time.
Citing M.M.’s written testimony, Murphy noted, according to The Buffalo News, that she "spoke about a plant that she focused on in the Defendant's room that she focused on as he was raping her. 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. The Defendant told her that, if she stopped resisting, it wouldn't hurt as much."
Steven M. Cohen, a lawyer for M.M., told The New York Times Wednesday that: “My client threw up in the ladies room following the sentencing.”
He added: “If Chris Belter was not a white defendant from a rich and influential family” he “would surely have been sentenced to prison.”
Along with M.M., Belter’s other victims included: a 16-year-old girl attacked on the night of Feb. 3-4, 2017; a 15-year-old girl on the night of Nov. 22-23, 2017; and a 16-year-old girl on Feb. 3-4, 2018.
The attacks all took place at his family’s home in wealthy Lewiston which had become known as the “party house,” The Buffalo News reported. A more appropriate name for the home, said Assistant District Attorney Peter M. Wydysh, “was a house of sexual assault."
Belter’s father, who's also named Christopher and is divorced from his mother, Tricia Vacanti, and her current husband, Gary Sullo, are all named as defendants in a lawsuit filed by M.M.’s family, The New York Times added. Vacanti is accused of supplying alcohol and marijuana to teenagers at parties at her house on occasions while Sullo and his friend, Jessica Long, have been charged with serving minors alcohol. They have all pleaded not guilty.
A previous judge gave him the opportunity to be treated as a youthful offender in 2019 when he was given an interim sentence of two years probation. He violated the terms of the probation, however, by watching pornography. He told the court he had been addicted to porn since age 7.
In a statement to the court in his most recent appearance, Belter said he was sorry for his actions and had now learned from them.
“Through treatment and reflection, I’ve come to feel deep shame and regret for my actions. None of you deserved to be in this situation,” he said, reading from a statement in court. “I hope each of you could close that wound I gashed.”
He added: “I know though, that a scar will remain that will serve as a reminder of the evil of that night.”
Cohen noted that Belter had suffered “no consequences” when he violated his first probation and told the Times that he had little confidence that he “would suffer any consequences at all for future violations of the terms of probation.”