Last week, Niagara County Judge Matthew J. Murphy III declined to sentence 20-year-old Christopher Belter to prison, after Belter pleaded guilty to the rape and sexual assault of four teenage girls. Murphy instead sentenced Belter to eight years’ probation and required him to register as a sex offender. The judge told the court he had “agonized” over the decision, but that sending Belter to prison “would be inappropriate.” Instead, the probation, Murphy told Belter, would be “like a sword hanging over your head for the next eight years.”
“I agonized. 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 told the court, without specifying who had been subject to this “great pain.” He added, “There was great harm. There were multiple crimes committed in the case.”
Despite this “great harm” and “multiple crimes,” Murphy’s prayers have guided him to shield Belter from any kind of meaningful accountability. Notably, in addition to the sexual assault charges to which Belter has pleaded guilty, he also violated the two-year, interim probation he had been placed on in 2018, which restricted his internet use and access to pornography. The interim probation was rendered by Sara Sheldon, who had been the Niagara County judge overseeing the case at the time.
Murphy, who is set to retire next month at New York state’s mandatory retirement age of 70, appeared determined to protect Belter throughout the duration of the trial, asking reporters at an earlier hearing to not publish Belter’s name even though his case had been a public story for years by that point. Belter’s light sentence has since sparked outrage and comparisons to the 2016 case of Brock Turner, known as the Stanford rapist, who was sentenced to just six months in county jail (only three of which he actually served) after being found guilty of rape, because Santa Clara County Judge Aaron Persky expressed concern about the “severe effect” a longer sentence might have on Turner.
This outrage at the coddling of abusers under the law ultimately isn’t new. The criminal justice system has proven time and again to be incapable of providing survivors of sexual harm with justice or protection, despite the fact that those same victims’ experiences are frequently invoked to justify the need for policing and law enforcement agencies. Belter’s case is yet another reminder of the ongoing trauma and dismissal that survivors face within this system, which functions by design to protect abusers (particularly, wealthy, white, male abusers like Belter and Turner).
An estimated 65 to 85 percent of sexual assaults are unreported to law enforcement, for a number of reasons that Belter’s sentencing should make relatively clear. While hundreds of thousands of rape kits sit untested across the country, and 90 percent of majority non-white incarcerated women are survivors of sexual violence, just five out of 1,000 rapists will ever be imprisoned. As for who is often handling reports of sexual violence, one study from 1992 found that 40% of police officers are domestic abusers, while other research has shown 60% of prison rapes are committed by guards and staff. Most judges at all levels of the judiciary come from highly wealthy and privileged backgrounds like Murphy’s, which can certainly help them identify more with young men like Belter than with victims.
Belter was indicted on felony charges of third-degree rape and attempted first-degree sexual abuse in 2018, after committing four separate assaults that took place at his parents’ house in a wealthy part of Lewiston. At the time of the assaults, he was 16 and 17, and a student at an elite private boys school. His family home was known among his peers as a “party house” for teens to consume liquor, marijuana, and other drugs, allegedly provided by his parents, per The Washington Post.
Belter’s father is a senior partner at the law firm Goldberg Segalla, where partners reportedly earn up to $1 million per year. His stepfather is the chief executive of Tramec LLC, a privately held company that supplies parts for trucks and reportedly has annual sales of $110 million, according to the New York Times. Police say Belter’s mother, stepfather, and an adult family friend provided the alcohol and drugs to teenage girls at the parties, to “groom” them for sexual assault by Belter.
Belter’s victims have since spoken out against Judge Murphy’s ruling. Earlier in the trial, one of his victims, identified as M.M., recalled that Belter “told her to stop being such a baby” as he raped her in August 2018, according to court documents. “I wish I would have had a louder voice at the beginning of all of this,” M.M. told the court. “Maybe I could have done more. That 16-year-old girl trusted a bit too much that justice would have been served. She worried that if she spoke up louder, she would get hurt even worse and hurt other people along the way. She had just assumed that all rapists go to jail.”
After the ruling, M.M. told CNN affiliate WKBW she was “disgusted” by the sentence, adding, “The judge had the opportunity to put out the fire, but he chose to let it keep burning.”
Another of Belter’s victims, a 19-year-old woman identified as Jane Doe who was assaulted by Belter in 2017, told CNN she “started to get sick” when she heard that Belter had only been sentenced to probation. “To know that someone used God’s name to rationalize such a sick decision was heartbreaking to me, that somehow Judge Murphy’s decision he made was appropriate because he prayed,” Doe said.
Doe also called the criminal justice system “beyond corrupt,” telling CNN she isn’t protected by the laws that currently exist, and “that these laws mean nothing to privileged people who are able to manipulate and abuse the system for their benefit.”
M.M. and Doe’s devastating statements reflect sentiments that survivors and advocates have been expressing for years. While different survivors have different perspectives on what constitutes justice, and on the need for prisons and incarceration, it’s not necessarily the lack of prison sentence alone that’s made Belter’s case so upsetting. Rather, it’s how Belter’s case fits into a broader trend of survivors’ experiences being dismissed in a criminal justice system that often protects abusers.
Advocates have long recognized that survivors are afforded little to no humanity by carceral policies that often require them to relive their most intense traumas, only to be torn apart by invasive questioning and investigations. For years, survivor advocates for decarceration have voiced support for approaches rooted in restorative justice, a framework that seeks to repair harm by centering victims and their communities rather than simply rendering punishment. At the same time, at different points, people who claim to support restorative justice have instead weaponized it to shame survivors for speaking up, or to protect abusers — not just from carceral outcomes, but from any kind of accountability.
Belter’s case presents just another reminder to victims of the minimal options that are afforded to them, even when they are believed, and even in such rare cases in which their abusers confess to the acts of harm they’ve committed. Belter will return to court for his Dec. 2 hearing to determine what kind of sex offender he’ll have to register as, but none of this, nor Murphy’s retirement, or Judge Persky’s recall before him, is real justice.
Belter will serve eight years of probation, and the judge who enabled him will no longer hold power. But Belter’s victims will carry the trauma he inflicted upon them for the rest of their lives, and all survivors will continue to exist in a system that sides with abusers time and again.