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'Betrayed by the system': Victims question rapists' no-jail sentences

Two teenage rapists appeared before Niagara County Judge Sara Sheldon on Wednesday.

In both cases, the judge decided not to send them to jail – at least for now.

Instead, she is giving them a chance to earn youthful offender status through their conduct on interim probation.

One of the victims told The Buffalo News that she feels "betrayed" by the criminal justice system.

"It was difficult to come forward," said the victim, who was 16 when Christopher J. Belter, then 17, sexually assaulted her in his Lewiston home on Aug. 2, 2018. Belter pleaded guilty to sex crimes against four teenage girls in his Lewiston home.

"The man who raped me comes from a wealthy and influential family," the victim said in a statement to The News. "I was told by the State Police and prosecutors that there was enough evidence from other victims that if I came forward and told what happened, he would be punished and wouldn't be able to do this to anyone else."

She continued: "After speaking with my family, we decided that the right thing to do would be to come forward. I did what I agreed to do. When he got probation and youthful offender status and some social limitations as his punishment, I felt betrayed by the system."

The victim in the case against Elias Q. Dowdy, 19, who admitted raping the girl in his Town of Niagara home, said in a text message to The Buffalo News on Thursday that she would have preferred her attacker go behind bars right away.

"No matter what I do to try and better myself, I always feel as if Eli is still on top holding me back," said Dowdy's victim, who attended Niagara Wheatfield High School with him. "I will always have those haunting and horrible memories from that day. He took a part of my life that I will never get back. ... I understand this interim probation isn't a slap on the wrist, but he should have deserved jail time. Then when he got out, he could have had probation."

Across the country, sentences and rulings that sexual assault victims have considered far too light have sparked outrage, most notably the Stanford University swimmer who served three months in jail in 2016 for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman. More recently, a New Jersey appellate court earlier this summer reversed a judge’s ruling that spared a 16-year-old boy from adult prosecution after he was accused of raping a fellow teen. The judge said he came from a “good family” and got good grades that would get him into a good college.

While the circumstances and evidence are different for every case, whether in California or Niagara County, jail is often the litmus test for how victims and the public view justice.

Attorney Steven Cohen, who is representing one of Belter's victims in a civil suit against him and his mother and stepfather, said she had expected her rapist to go to jail.

"His sentence is that he can't use his computer and cellphone and can't go to parties," Cohen said of Sheldon's decision. "That's the typical punishment to your kids for getting bad grades or not doing your chores. The sentence leaves the victims in a profound state of disappointment."

Both Belter and Dowdy risk state prison sentences – eight years for Belter, four years for Dowdy – if they don't comply with dozens of stringent restrictions on their conduct.

Belter faces two years of probation before a final sentence is imposed. For Dowdy, the probation term is one year. Belter was 16 and 17 at the time of his crimes, while Dowdy was three days short of his 18th birthday.

But if they get through their interim probation terms without slipping up, they are expected to receive youthful offender status, which would wipe out their convictions in the eyes of the law. And it would save them from having to register as sex offenders.

From left to right, Elias Q. Dowdy, Assistant Niagara County Public Defender David E. Blackley and Assistant District Attorney Lisa M. Baehre in Niagara County Court on Aug. 28, 2019. (Thomas J. Prohaska/Buffalo News)

DA defends interim probation

Niagara County District Attorney Caroline A. Wojtaszek defended the judge's choice.

"It is simply holding the sentence in abeyance for one or two years, whatever the judge decides, to generally gather more information and insight from professionals," Wojtaszek said.

She said in the Belter case, both sides proposed that the judge place him on interim probation.

But Wojtaszek said she does not have a policy of seeking interim probation in every teenage sex case.

"It's done with full consultation with the victim and, when appropriate, full consultation with the victim's family," Wojtaszek said.

Putting off final sentencing is a choice a judge can make in hopes of finding out more about the person she is sentencing, and it's done in all types of cases, but particularly in cases involving young defendants, such as Belter and Dowdy.

"In both of these cases, you're dealing with young men who were 16 and 17 years old when these crimes were committed," Wojtaszek said. "They have no record. They have no life history that provides the judge with the necessary insight. So who are these offenders? And that's what, in many cases involving youth in general, the judge wants to learn or understand before a sentence is pronounced."

Besides simply punishing the perpetrators, judges are supposed to consider the chances of rehabilitating them, the district attorney said.

In the Belter case, she and First Assistant District Attorney Holly E. Sloma met individually and collectively with the families.

"We discussed with them, like we do in every case, what it means to go to trial, our ability to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt, which can vary depending on the case," Wojtaszek said.

The strength of the evidence differed for each of Belter's victims, and as is typical in sex cases, the decision on a plea offer depended in large part on the victims' stories, Wojtaszek said.

Belter ended up pleading guilty to two felonies, third-degree rape and attempted first-degree sexual abuse, and two misdemeanor counts of second-degree sexual abuse.

Niagara County Judge Sara Sheldon reads probation rules to an 18-year-old sex crime defendant Aug. 28, 2019. (Thomas J. Prohaska/Buffalo News)

Judge had second thoughts

Sheldon had promised Belter a year of interim probation when he pleaded guilty July 1. But she had second thoughts after reading a presentencing report that included impact statements from the four victims, as well as a statement from Belter.

Sheldon said when she read the "minute detail" in the report, "I went nuts." She said she questioned how she could grant Belter youthful offender status.

Sheldon postponed a July 30 sentencing date until Wednesday after meeting with the attorneys in her chambers, but Sloma and Barry N. Covert, Belter's attorney, both denied Thursday that Sheldon accused them of withholding information from her.

"She was never acting negatively toward us when we were in chambers. It was never a situation where I felt we were withholding something," Sloma said.

"When we appeared for the (first) sentencing date, the judge indicated that after reading the presentencing report, she wanted to not go forward, so we had additional time to address the issues at hand," Covert said.

Both attorneys said the probation officer who wrote the report had been part of an earlier meeting with Sheldon in which the statements of Belter's victims were reviewed in detail.

"I noted that the judge imposed onerous conditions that (Belter) must comply with in order to earn youthful offender status," Covert said.

Those conditions, almost identical for Belter and Dowdy, require them to obtain their probation officers' permission to use the internet, and they are barred from social media or from personal contact with anyone age 17 or younger.

They are required to stay in sex offender counseling, obtain mental health evaluations and avoid alcohol and illegal drugs. And they are barred from contacting their victims, even through third parties.

Wojtaszek said the sex counselors will use a lie detector in questioning the defendants, giving Sheldon more to go on when she sentences Belter and Dowdy.

Wojtaszek said her goals in the Belter case included a guilty plea for crimes against each of the four victims and to prevent Belter from victimizing anyone else. The four girls made that possible by coming forward, Wojtaszek said.

"I think they've effectively, by coming forward, changed the course of the defendant's life," Wojtaszek said. "As the judge said, his life is basically, rightfully, over as he knows it. He cannot live the life of a typical 18-year-old by any measure. And he has up to eight years in state prison hanging over his head."

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