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November 19, 2021

Brock Turner 2.0 in New York?: privileged teen receives surprisingly lenient sentence for multiple sex offenses (and now national attention)

Because there are literally tens of thousands of state and federal sentences imposed every month, one can always find an array of notable stories of notable leniency and notable severity in individual sentencings.  But only a handful of sentencing stories ever garner broad national attention, and a variety of predictable and unpredictable factors usually account for what gives certain sentencing stories particular salience.  The case of Stanford swimmer Brock Turner, the 20-year old given only six months in a California jail for a sexual assault, had a bunch of factors that led it to receive more attention than any single state sentence of recent vintage.  I am now wondering if the lenient sentence this week of Christopher Belter might also have similar factors.

This USA Today article provide these details under the headline, "A New York man pleaded guilty to rape and sexual abuse charges. He wasn't sentenced to prison":

A New York man who pleaded guilty to rape and sexual abuse charges will not face prison time, and instead was sentenced to probation earlier this week. Christopher Belter, 20, in 2019 pleaded guilty to felony charges including third-degree rape and attempted first-degree sexual abuse. He also pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor sexual abuse charges, according to multiple reports.

The crimes against four victims occurred when he was 16 and 17 years old. Three of the victims were 16 years old at the time, and one was 15. Belter was facing a maximum sentence of up to eight years in prison. But Niagara County Court Judge Matthew J. Murphy III on Tuesday gave the man eight years probation. The judge said a prison sentence would be "inappropriate.”

“I’m not ashamed to say that I actually prayed over what is the appropriate sentence in this case because there was great pain. There was great harm. There were multiple crimes committed in the case,” Murphy said, according to WKBW. “It seems to me that a sentence that involves incarceration or partial incarceration isn’t appropriate, so I am going to sentence you to probation,” he added.

Belter will have to register as a sex offender under his sentence, according to multiple reports.

Steven Cohen, an attorney representing one of the victims, said in a statement to USA TODAY that his client is “deeply disappointed in the sentencing.” He added that his client “threw up in the ladies room following 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, it is my belief he wouldn’t have received the original plea deal, and he would surely have been sentenced to prison,” Cohen said. “The greater harm, however, is that the sentencing in this matter would seem to perpetuate the insane belief that rape is not a serious crime and that its occurrence results in little consequence to the perpetrator. Our society needs to do much better,” he added.

Barry Covert, Belter's attorney, said the man “is tremendously remorseful for what he's done.” "There are clients who are never able to empathize with their victims no matter how much counseling they receive. Chris isn't one of them," he said, The Buffalo News reported....

The crimes occurred in 2017 and 2018 at Belter’s parents' home in Lewiston, New York. In 2019, judge Sara Sheldon, who has since retired, put Belter on two years’ interim probation. She said he could apply for youthful offender status, which would have lowered his maximum sentence and allowed him not to register as a sex offender.

Belter confirmed in court last month that he violated the agreement by installing software on a computer to view pornography. Murphy later denied Belter the youthful offender status, ruling that he would be sentenced as an adult.

Niagara County District Attorney Brian Seaman said in a statement obtained by USA TODAY: "Based on the seriousness of these crimes, the very powerful and emotional statements of the victims and the fact that Christopher Belter was already given a shot at interim probation and failed, my office has been very clear that we believed a prison sentence was entirely appropriate in this case.”

Here is just a sampling of some of the other national press coverage that this case is now receiving:

From ABC News, "Judge sentences admitted rapist to probation, no prison time"

From CBS News, "A judge sentenced a rapist to probation. One of his victims warns "he will offend again"

From NBC News, "Judge says prison 'inappropriate' for New York man who sexually assaulted 4 teens"

November 19, 2021 at 10:44 AM | Permalink


I always find these OUTRAGEOUS cases worthy of somewhat a grain of salt since one-offs don't tell me much.

Brock Turner coverage often left out how a pre-sentencing report (by a woman) supported a comparable sentence. The problem in a basic sense seemed to me to be public statements of the judge and a bit of that seems to be here.

Take Rittenhouse's judge. I have not kept close track of the trial, but the judge ran unopposed more than once. What was his overall record? How did it compare to other judges in the state or in general? etc.

The facts here seem to show that the sentence is wrong & in fact it is worse that the other case, including the multiple victims. He was a teenager when the crimes were committed, but was tried as an adult. WHY was no prison time "appropriate" exactly?

The fact "a shot at interim probation and failed" is a big red flag to me. OTOH, the prohibition of viewing porn seems off to me.

Posted by: Joe | Nov 19, 2021 11:28:06 AM

I didn't see the entire pronunciation by the Judge, but I would have loved to hear something similar to what the federal judges do as they run through the 18 USC 3553(a) factors. This should be no different and based upon what I have seen and heard, the judge simply said prison was not appropriate. Please tell me why and please tell me the prosecutor will file an appeal.

Posted by: atomicfrog | Nov 19, 2021 2:24:29 PM

Defense Counsel:
What's missing from the media reports are basic facts. Belter pleaded guilty to NY's Rape 3rd offenses-statutory rape, along with other misdemeanor sex offenses. Under NY law, the plea bargain first had to be agreed to by the DA's office, by the parent's/guardians of they young women (because at the time of the offenses, they were minors), and finally by the original presiding judge. "Youthful Offender" status was left open. So, one can only infer that there were proof issues regarding the underlying allegations which caused the parties collectively, to come to the final plea agreement.

He did not get Youthful Offender status, and so now has felony convictions on his record, not to mention registering as a sex offender. Additionally, I suspect based upon the sentencing Judge's comments, that since the original plea-deal was for a "no jail/prison" sentence, that the Judge was (rightfully) concerned about whether or not IF he sentenced Beltier to prison, that would breach the plea agreement. Under the public facts available, it's impossible to know, but if that was an issue, prudence probably dictated the result.

Posted by: Donald G Rehkopf, Jr. | Nov 20, 2021 3:22:46 PM

To say that this young man did not receive adequate punishment commensurate with his crimes is quite debatable.

There are a considerable number of collateral consequences, all quite punitive in nature, that he will be dealing with for the next two decades, at minimum. This is a result of the court's order that he register as a sex offender. In the state of New Yawk, the minimum length of time for which he must register is 20 years, and depending on his classification as a tier two or three offender he may very well be required to register for the remiander of his life. That IS a severe punishment. I would much rather do 5 years in prison rather than sentenced to a lifetime on the registry. Make no mistake about that. He will face travel restrictions (including international travel restrictions so he will never be allowed into Canada, Mexico, and most countries around the world). Aside from the annoyance of yearly reporting, which admittedly isn't much, he will never hold any professional licenses issued by the state(so he may never be a lawyer, stock broker, doctor, real estate salesman, etc). Most impactful of all will be the public stigmatization and shaming. His name, photograph, address, and nature of his offenses will be made available for all to view on the internet, for the remainder of his life. Should he fail to timely provide updated information and re-regiseter every year, it will be a new FELONY offense, for which he will face prison exposure. Just read about a fellow who got 9 years for registering late.

Certainly there are those who will say "Good. He deserves it. He made his bed so let him lie in it. He's getting off easy. His victims have a lifetime sentence as well", etc. While those points have some validity, punishment for crimes must adhere to the goals and principles set forth in the guidelines: Retribution, deterrence, incapacitation and rehabilitation. And no one of those principles should ever outweigh another.

Please keep in mind that if he violates his conditions of probation over the next eight long years, he certainly can be and likely will be incarcerated. I believe that there is a high likelihood that he will violate at some point over the next 8 years as his brain is still developing and he seems to lack the maturity, impulse control, stability, etc. necessary to keep his nose clean (based upon the various personal factors presented through media accounts and statements attributable to the court and probation officer).

Bottom line, this kid is by no means being given a free pass or a slap on the wrist. As it is apparent to me that he has a sexual addiction (e.g., porn offense while on initial probation). The judge was correct. Prison does NOT serve to rehabiliate or modify behaviors such as this, once released. He needs ongoing long-term treatment if he is going to stay out of prison. He is an addict, just as much as any drug addict is an addict. Not sure if the judge ordered treatment but it should be part of the sentence, if this kid is gonna have any shot at all of not re-offending, or staying out of the joint.

Posted by: SG | Nov 20, 2021 4:28:08 PM

I'm somewhat agnostic here w/o a full accounting.

Reference is made in the NYT article:

"In a statement on Thursday, Brian Seaman, the Niagara County district attorney, expressed frustration with the sentence, saying that the office had been “very clear that we believed a prison sentence was entirely appropriate in this case.”

So, it is unclear to me there is threat of a breach of a plea agreement. Again, I don't know. We really should be careful making clear statements from the outside.

As to SG, there would be all those consequences in general on a regular basis. One finds it hard to imagine why one would ever need to get prison time. Four victims, not one incident as in the Turner case, is cited. On top of that, he violated previous terms.

Turner got a minimal amount of jail time. For one incident.

Posted by: Joe | Nov 21, 2021 12:18:33 AM

Does anyone else find it strange that the judge said he prayed over the sentence? These decisions are supposed to be made in accordance with law, not the judges’ personal religious convictions or what they imagine God wants them to do.

Posted by: Curious | Nov 21, 2021 7:49:42 AM

I'm not concerned about the "prayer" thing.

Is it so rare for a judge to speak of that? It is a means of expressing how hard the decision was, how deeply the judge had to think about it.

I don't think the judge merely decided based on what God wanted. People say things like that in a range of cases, including to obtain results people who don't like this one would find copacetic.

Posted by: Joe | Nov 22, 2021 10:45:45 AM

I'm not sure how often judges speak like this, but they shouldn't. If they mean to express that the decision was hard and they thought a lot about it, then they should say that instead. Saying they "prayed on" it suggests they've based their decision, at least in part, on their communications with God, which IMHO is a violation of their oath.

Imagine a Supreme Court justice voted to grant a stay of execution and explained in their opinion that they had prayed on the decision. There would rightfully be an outcry, because the justices' personal religious views shouldn't impact their votes. Neither should such views influence judges' sentencing decisions.

Posted by: Curious | Nov 23, 2021 5:05:41 PM

The judge's job here is to apply the law.

If praying or rubbing a rabbit's foot helps the clarity of mind to do that, he can do it. Some might oppose it, but each day of Congress starts with a prayer. Lawmakers also take constitutional oaths.

I suppose there would be an "outcry" from some, but it would be confused. Federal judges have religious faith. They pray on things. People might not want to hear that they do, but that to me is rather naive and hiding the ball here doesn't change reality.

Justice Blackmun in Furman v. Georgia spoke of the "excruciating agony of the spirit" involved when he had to decide capital cases. For some, that involves praying over the thing. In the end, they apply the law.

Maybe, actually being open about these things is too problematic, but in the end, it seems if anything more honest to say what is going on either way.

Posted by: Joe | Nov 24, 2021 3:03:59 PM

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