- Steven Cohenattorney for a survivor in the rape and sexual assault trial against Christopher Belter.
The survivor of a serial rapist who received probation joins us to speak out after a New York judge sparked international outrage when he ruled it is inappropriate to jail the man who attacked her. Christopher Belter pleaded guilty to raping and sexually assaulting her, along with three other teenage girls ages 15 and 16, but he will avoid serving time in prison and instead receive eight years of probation. Belter is white and from a prominent family who lives in a wealthy neighborhood near Niagara Falls. “This sentencing is telling rapists it’s OK to rape and telling victims that there’s no point in coming forward,” says Mara. Her lawyer Steven Cohen of the HoganWillig law firm notes a nonwhite defendant who pleaded guilty to these crimes would “absolutely and appropriately be in prison.”
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.
Before we continue, a warning to our audience: In our next segment, we discuss sexual violence, a highly disturbing case here in New York that’s drawn international condemnation after a man who pleaded guilty to raping and sexually assaulting four teenage girls will avoid prison after he received an extraordinarily lenient sentence of probation.
Chris Belter, who is now 20 years old, received eight years’ probation and no jail time after he pleaded guilty to attempted first-degree sexual abuse, third-degree rape and two counts of second-degree sexual abuse. The four teenagers who Belter sexually assaulted at his home were 15 and 16. Belter, who’s white and from a prominent family who lives in a wealthy neighborhood near Niagara Falls. The sentence of probation came after Belter had been accused of more serious crimes in the four attacks but agreed to plead guilty to lesser charges and a previous judge gave him an interim sentence of two years’ probation, along with the chance to be sentenced as a youthful offender and avoid registering as a sex offender, but Belter violated the terms of that probation multiple times and was sentenced as an adult.
This is Judge Matthew Murphy speaking before he delivered the sentence of probation to Chris Belter last week in Niagara County.
JUDGE MATTHEW MURPHY III: 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, there was great harm, there were multiple crimes committed in the case.
AMY GOODMAN: In response to the judge’s sentencing of Belter to no jail time, to probation, one of the survivors, who was in the courtroom, told Buffalo news station WKBW she had to immediately run to the bathroom to throw up.
MARA: I lost it. I mean, I just — I didn’t expect to be as emotional as I was, but I just broke down. Like, I was shaking with anger. I was disgusted at the fact that this was even an option.
AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined by that brave young woman who you just heard and her lawyer, Steven Cohen with the HoganWillig law firm. Mara — we’re just using her first name at her request to protect some of her privacy — testified in court about how Christopher Belter raped her when she was just 16. She’s now speaking out about Judge Murphy’s decision to sentence him to probation.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Mara, we want to begin with you, and I know this is difficult. You’re remarkably brave to talk publicly. Talk about your reaction to the sentence of probation. How did you respond in the courtroom?
MARA: I was so disappointed to hear the word “probation.” I fully expected to go into that courtroom and watch him get taken out in cuffs to go to prison. I mean, I was so disappointed in Judge Murphy that he made that decision.
AMY GOODMAN: What did you do?
MARA: I started crying. It’s just like the tears started pouring out. And I was shaking. I was just so furious and disgusted. I couldn’t even control my own emotions, and I got sick to my stomach.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Mara, Belter apologized to you and his three other victims in court, but you said that his response sounded robotic and like someone else had written it for him. Your thoughts again about his apology?
MARA: Absolutely. He didn’t mean a word coming out of his mouth. He was doing what was in his best interest, and the judge completely fell for it.
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, to understand, you were 16 years old. This is a few years ago. And you had gone to Christopher Belter’s house because you were friends with his sister and you were sleeping over so that you could go with her to Chicago the next day?
MARA: Correct, yes.
AMY GOODMAN: You’ve compared what happened to you to the wildfires, the forest fires in California. Can you explain?
MARA: Yeah. Before Christopher came into my life and before he did this to me and to these other girls, we were just a bunch of bright green trees. And he burned us down. He ruined us.
AMY GOODMAN: Did you know the other girls?
MARA: I did, yes. We all went to school together. We were all friends with his sister.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I’d like to bring in your lawyer, Steve Cohen, into the conversation. Mr. Cohen, your response to the judge’s sentence? And also, could you talk about how — you’ve said that the crimes Belter committed were far worse than what he pleaded to. How was this plea deal developed?
STEVEN COHEN: The plea deal was a shock when it was originally offered. And the district attorney at the time, Caroline Wojtaszek, made promises to the girls that if they consent to this plea deal, that Chris Belter would be subject to restrictions that he would most certainly violate, and they agreed. The district attorney, Caroline Wojtaszek, got these girls to agree to consent to the plea with the understanding that there’s no way that Chris would be able to stay away from a cellphone and a computer and stay away from parties and keep himself confined to the house, and then he would go to prison for violation of the terms.
Well, they agreed to it, he violated the terms of probation, and nothing happened. I was getting calls from my client and her parents and the other victims and their parents saying, “Hey, we just saw Chris Belter, you know, at this location doing this, that or the other thing. He’s in violation of probation.” So I sent a letter back in August of 2020 to the probation officer and to the district attorney, Caroline Wojtaszek. And I said, “Look, these are violations. I have screenshots of a drug transaction he just engaged in — you know, allegedly. That’s what was provided to me; I’m providing it to you.” Not a single call back. When the probation officer testified on his behalf at this sentencing here, it was the most — among the most bizarre things I’ve seen in my 30-plus years of practicing law.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Mr. Cohen, you said that if Belter was not a rich white kid from a privileged background and influential family, he’d be in prison right now. Could you talk about his family and even the role of his parents in some of these incidents?
STEVEN COHEN: Well, his parents are very privileged. His father is a very successful attorney. His father doesn’t live with Christopher. This is really on the mother, Tricia Vacanti, and stepfather, Gary Sullo, and the neighbor, Jessica Long. Chris Belter Sr. doesn’t live at the house that’s come to be known as the Lewiston “party house.” It’s a mansion of impressive proportions.
And I can tell you, having practiced for decades, an African American, a Hispanic, a Native American, a Muslim defendant who was found guilty or pleaded guilty to these crimes would absolutely and appropriately be in prison. Chris Belter’s mother is a lawyer, Tricia Vacanti; father is a lawyer. The stepfather is a businessman, a very successful businessman. And I have to believe that that’s what played a role in this.
I mean, to get the probation officer to testify, to say, “Yeah, he violated probation, but we’re not pushing — we’re not advocating for prison time,” is shocking to me. You know, the therapist who was asked to evaluate Chris Belter, an expert, Dr. David Heffler, he’s renowned as an expert in criminal sexual conduct and rehabilitation and recidivism, he testified, right in open court. He said, “This man is likely to reoffend.” And then he was asked, “Well, is it in Chris Belter’s best interest to go to prison?” And he honestly responded, “In Chris Belter’s best interest? No. No, Chris Belter, after 10 years of therapy and libido-reducing drugs, may be able to be cured.” And the judge hung his hat on that. This shouldn’t be about what’s in Chris Belter’s best interest; should be about justice for the victims and, secondarily, protecting society from someone who the court’s own expert, Dr. Heffler, said is likely to reoffend.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, to be clear, his mother and others have been charged, is that right, in aiding and abetting, giving some of the young people drugs, alcohol? And they’ve pleaded not guilty, but they’re going to — are they going to trial?
STEVEN COHEN: Well, they were charged with this two years ago, and so far nothing has happened. I’ve gone up to the Lewiston Town Court to watch the proceedings to see if anything would happen with these people, and it continues to get adjourned and adjourned and adjourned. So, they seem to be evading the criminal justice system, as well.
AMY GOODMAN: So —
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: Go ahead, Juan.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I wanted to ask you — you’re familiar with Judge Murphy. Could you talk about him and the interactions you’ve had with him or other lawyers have had with him in the past in cases?
STEVEN COHEN: I’ll be perfectly honest with you: Judge Murphy has always been an excellent judge. I have been before His Honor in criminal cases, in civil cases, in pistol permit revocation cases, and he has always been a good judge to be in front of. He does the right thing, typically. I don’t know what happened here. I can’t figure it out.
AMY GOODMAN: The Buffalo News had a powerful editorial where they asked, “Does anyone remember any poor, Black defendants being treated so kindly for serial sexual abuse?” And they went on to say, “Nor is this the first time Murphy” — that’s the judge — “bent over backward for Belter. Earlier this year, in considering how to respond to a previous violation of his probation, Murphy prohibited the media from using Belter’s name, even though it had already been reported and could easily be found on internet searches. What is it with him and Belter?” I mean, Belter is 20 years old.
STEVEN COHEN: I don’t know. I can’t figure it out. The courtroom was an open courtroom, and when I went up to ask for the transcript, I originally was prohibited from getting the transcript. The judge eventually allowed me to get a transcript of the proceedings. I don’t know. Something about this case has caused His Honor to act in a way that I’ve never known him to act before. He was a fine district attorney for years. Matthew Murphy was an excellent district attorney in Niagara County. This case is an aberration, and it is an outrage.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go back to The Buffalo News and that editorial that they wrote condemning the judge’s decision to not sentence this serial rapist to prison. They said, “Murphy isn’t the first judge to value the prospects of promising young rapists over the suffering of their victims.” Mara, you’ve said you believe your voice is powerful. How do you hope to inspire other young survivors? And have you and the other young women, again, who were raped and sexually abused at the age of 15 and 16, have you brought a civil lawsuit against Christopher Belter and his family?
MARA: We have. There’s two of the victims who have, but not all four of us. And as for my voice, this was not just a disappointment to me. The outcome of this case was a disappointment to victims across the country. This is not just about the Belter case anymore. This is about all of the Christopher Belters in our country and all of the victims of them. And there needs to be a change; otherwise, what’s the point in victims coming forward? This sentencing is telling rapists it’s OK to rape and telling victims that there’s no point in coming forward.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us. Mara, you are remarkably brave, and we thank you for talking to us today. We are talking to Mara, who was in the courtroom when the sentence of no jail was handed down. She is a rape survivor. And we’ve been joined by her lawyer, Steven M. Cohen, civil rights lawyer with HoganWillig law firm.
This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org. When we come back, Jeremy Scahill of The Intercept on his new piece, “The War Party: From Bush to Obama, and Trump to Biden, U.S. Militarism Is the Great Unifier.” Stay with us.