A New York man who pleaded guilty to rape and sexual abuse for assaulting four teenage girls when he was also a teen avoided prison when a judge sentenced him Tuesday to eight years probation, according to an attorney for one of the victims.
Niagara County Court Judge Matthew J. Murphy III said a prison sentence for Christopher Belter, 20, “would be inappropriate," according to The Buffalo News.
The ruling shocked the courtroom and Belter's victims.
"My client threw up in the ladies room following the sentencing," Steven M. Cohen, an attorney for one of the victims told NBC News. He added that she was "deeply disappointed in the sentencing."
"I have been practicing law for over 30 years. If Chris Belter was not a white defendant from a rich and influential family, in my experience he wouldn’t have received the original plea deal, and he would surely have been sentenced to prison," Cohen said.
Barry N. Covert, an attorney for Belter, declined to comment. Covert told reporters in the courtroom that his client was “remorseful.”
Belter was charged with first-degree rape, third-degree rape and sexual abuse in 2018. The next year, as part of a plea deal, he pleaded guilty in 2019 to lesser felony charges of third-degree rape and attempted first-degree sexual abuse and two misdemeanor counts of second-degree sexual abuse.
Belter was put on two years probation by another judge, who has since retired, and given the chance to apply for youthful offender status if he didn’t violate the terms of his probation, according to The Buffalo News.
But he admitted last month to installing software on his computer that would bypass a block that would prevent him from viewing pornography, the newspaper reported. He told his probation officer he has been watching porn since he was 7, according to The Buffalo News.
Murphy denied Belter youthful offender status due to the violation.
"The assumption when Judge Murphy denied youthful offender status was that Chris Belter would receive prison time," Cohen said.
But Murphy said Tuesday that he "agonized" over the sentencing.
"I’m not ashamed to say I actually prayed over what the appropriate sentence would be,” Murphy said. He sentenced Belter to 10 years probation, with 2 years credit for time served.
A hearing in front of Murphy will be held early next month to determine Belter's sex offender status, Cohen said.
Belter’s crimes took place in his home, which is situated in the wealthy Lewiston neighborhood.
Belter’s mother, Tricia Vacanti, his stepfather, Gary E. Sullo, and family friend, Jessica M. Long, are accused of supplying the victims, three 16-year-olds and one 15-year-old, with alcohol and marijuana on different dates between 2017 and 2018 to groom them for the assaults, The Buffalo News reported, citing New York State Police.
They have pleaded not guilty to misdemeanor charges of child endangerment and unlawfully dealing with a child.
Efforts to reach Vacanti and Sullo by phone Thursday were not successful. Long, when reached on her cellphone, declined to comment.