Christopher J. Belling has plenty of accomplishments from his 41 years as a prosecutor, 38 of them in Erie County.
He took more than 300 felony cases here to trial. He served under six district attorneys: Edward C. Cosgrove, Richard J. Arcara, Kevin M. Dillon, Frank J. Clark, Frank A. Sedita III and Michael J. Flaherty Jr.
And he carved out a reputation for training young assistant district attorneys for 35 years, including a three-year stint with the New York Prosecutors Training Institute.
But Belling, forced to leave the Erie County district attorney’s office at the end of last year, may be best known for two high-profile cases: the acquittal on the most serious charges against Dr. James G. Corasanti and the murder conviction (later resulting in a manslaughter plea) of Jeffrey J. Basil.
The 67-year-old Belling was asked to resign by new District Attorney John J. Flynn Jr., who’s assembling his own administrative team.
Belling said he’s more sad than angry about being replaced, adding that he still had contributions to make and would have been an asset to the new district attorney.
Flynn didn’t explain his decision but did issue a brief statement.
“Every elected official brings in his own leadership team,” Flynn stated, while noting that he’s kept more than 80 assistant district attorneys from the previous regime. “I appreciate very much Chris Belling’s years of service to the people of Erie County, and I wish him well.”
That lengthy service included several cases that grabbed huge headlines, sometimes stirring up controversy.
The Corasanti case probably raised the greatest public outcry over any recent criminal case. A jury acquitted Corasanti of manslaughter and leaving the scene of a deadly accident, after his vehicle struck and killed 18-year-old longboard skater Alexandria “Alix” Rice. Corasanti was convicted only of misdemeanor DWI and served less than a year in jail.
The prosecution, though, was spared the brunt of the public’s wrath.
Rice’s parents, while saying they were baffled by the acquittal, complimented Belling and other prosecutors for doing what they called an “awesome” job in presenting the case to the jury.Many, though criticized the jury, especially for acquitting Corasanti of leaving the scene of a serious accident.
“The interesting thing about Corasanti for me was that, after the trial, the jury was roundly criticized by the public,” Belling said. “The prosecution wasn’t criticized.”
Belling, who said he was brought into the case just days before the trial, apparently doesn’t agree with the theory that the defense team did a much better job than prosecutors of connecting with the jury. And he pointed out that the exhaustive media coverage of the trial meant that the public learned a lot of details about the case.
“The public simply reached a different decision than the jury,” he said. “I can’t figure that out. I just don’t understand how they saw the same case the public saw and resolved it differently.”
When pressed, Belling speculated that the prosecution probably would have won convictions on the most serious charges if a judge had decided the case in a non-jury trial.
And he thinks the defendant’s profession may have helped explain the verdict.
“I think the public has a tremendous inertia when it comes to thinking bad things about medical doctors,” he said.
The jury foreman’s comments about Corasanti the day after the verdict seemed to back up that theory,
“He seemed like a very nice man,” the foreman told The Buffalo News. “He made a good impression on the stand. But I don’t know if I believed everything he said. Some people did.”
In the Basil trial, following a fatal push that sent an Iraqi War veteran down a flight of stairs at Molly’s Pub, the challenge was to translate all the technical facts into a cohesive criminal case that a jury could understand well enough to consider a guilty verdict, the veteran prosecutor suggested.
Belling credited Assistant District Attorney Seth Molisani with finding a University at Buffalo physics professor who used formulas to determine that the two-handed push was delivered with 374 pounds of force. The victim’s body accelerated to 17 mph before his head hit the floor, under this calculation.
“Going into the Basil trial, we had a lot of anecdotal information about Basil’s being violent and a bully in his role as a bar manager around Buffalo over the years,” Belling stated. “What we needed, and what we found in the testimony of the physics professor, was a way to quantify the violence of his actions in pushing [the victim], and a way to make it understandable to the jury.”
Courtroom observers considered that testimony a key in winning a second-degree murder conviction against Basil that was overturned because of juror misconduct. Basil later pleaded guilty to first-degree manslaughter.
Belling, a Buffalo native who graduated from the old Williamsville High School, UB and its law school, started with the district attorney’s office in 1975. From 2007 to 2010, he worked for the New York Prosecutors Training Institute, helping small district attorneys’ offices across the state try celebrated criminal cases. In that role, he prosecuted murder cases in Chenango, Tioga and St. Lawrence counties.
And he helped teach younger attorneys for 35 years, since 1982.
“There have now been a generation and a half of lawyers who have benefited from my ability to train them how to do this job,” he said.
Belling insisted he’s not retiring, as he considers other possible jobs.
“I’m not done.”