So, here’s the standard Niagara County Judge Sara Sheldon set last week: If you’re an otherwise law-abiding teenage boy, you can sexually assault up to four girls without going to prison. It may help if you’re from a well-to-do family, but it isn’t essential, as Sheldon also demonstrated by giving a different teen rapist similar treatment.
Whatever other issues Sheldon may have identified to justify her insufficient response to these crimes – and there are other issues – the critical and overarching fact is the lifelong trauma that these two boys inflicted on their victims. Sheldon’s sentence diminished, disrespected and disregarded the suffering of girls who had the strength to come forward.
It’s becoming an old story. Judges, focusing too much on the potential suffering of young rapists, cite the family’s standing or the defendant’s clean record in sparing sexual predators the prison sentences they have earned. It happened recently in New Jersey and before that in California. And something like it happened last week in Niagara County.
Christopher J. Belter was 17 when he raped a 16-year-old girl in his Lewiston home, reportedly known by local teenagers as the “party house.” He pleaded guilty to sex crimes against four teenage girls in that house.
For that, Sheldon sentenced him to interim probation for two years. If he completes that, he will be granted youthful offender status, cancelling his convictions and avoiding the need to register as the sex offender that he is. If he fails, he faces eight years in prison.
One of his victims said that after summoning the courage to come forward, she now feels “betrayed by the system.”
Elias Q. Dowdy, meanwhile, also walked away with interim probation. The former Niagara Wheatfield student was 17 when he raped a classmate in her home in the Town of Niagara. He was sentenced to a year of interim probation with the same potential benefits as Belter but facing only four years in prison if he falls short of the conditions, which Sheldon described as “no internet, no social media, no parties.”
“It literally sucks the life out of you,” she bloviated without any apparent recognition of what the two boys – and her sentence – did to five victims.
“The man who raped me comes from a wealthy and influential family,” one of Belter’s victims 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 did come forward. And then the court failed her. “When he got probation and youthful offender status and some social limitations as his punishment, I felt betrayed by the system,” she told The News.
Dowdy’s victim also felt let down. “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.” It was a mature and thoughtful response to the miserable injustice done to her.
It’s true that a judge must take a variety of factors into consideration, and among them is the possibility of rehabilitation. A second chance may often be an appropriate response by a thoughtful and caring society. But first comes penance and “I’m sorry” doesn’t begin to cut it, especially when there are multiple victims.
These girls deserved better. They didn’t get it from a judge who should have known better, herself.