The state Supreme Court threw out a man’s 60-year prison sentence handed down in 1997 because the sentencing judge said he was a “charter member” of the “superpredator” group, a debunked theory from the 1990s that warned thousands of young Black men with no regard for human life would soon prowl the streets committing violent crimes.
Keith Belcher, now 43, will be resentenced by a lower court for crimes he committed when he was a child.
“In summary, by invoking the superpredator theory to sentence the young, Black male defendant in the present case, the sentencing court, perhaps even without realizing it, relied on materially false, racial stereotypes that perpetuate systemic inequities—demanding harsher sentences—that date back to the founding of our nation,” Justice Raheem L. Mullins wrote in the 18-page opinion released on Jan. 21.
“Although we do not mean to suggest that the sentencing judge intended to perpetuate a race based stereotype, we cannot overlook the fact that the superpredator myth is precisely the type of materially false information that courts should not rely on in making sentencing decisions.”
Belcher was 14 years old on Christmas Eve, 1993, when he pulled a gun on an elderly woman unloading groceries from her car outside her apartment in Bridgeport and told her to give him her purse. When she told him it was upstairs, he led her at gun point to her apartment, where he sexually assaulted her twice and pistol-whipped her.
Belcher’s case was transferred to adult court. Jurors found him guilty of kidnapping, sexual assault, robbery and burglary in a trial that concluded in October 1996. After the foreman read the verdict, Belcher punched the judicial marshal standing beside him in the mouth. pushed the other marshal into the wall and charged the jury. Marshals tackled him before he reached the jury box.
Three months later, on Jan. 24, 1997, Superior Court Judge Michael Hartmere sentenced Belcher to 60 years in prison. He told those in the courtroom that Belcher’s actions were “just so inhumane as to be considered subhuman.” The pre-sentence investigation showed that Belcher had average intelligence, the judge said — Belcher could have chosen another lifestyle, but he simply chose not to.
Hartmere then referenced Princeton Professor John DiIulio, Jr. and his “superpredator” term, which Hartmere defined as “a group of radically impulsive, brutally remorseless youngsters who assault, rape, rob and burglarize.”
Hartmere called Belcher a “charter member” of the superpredator group.
“You have no fears, from your conduct, of the pains of imprisonment; nor do you suffer from the pangs of conscience,” Hartmere said. “I agree with the [prosecutor], the probation officer, and the victim, who, incidentally, still suffers physically and psychologically from your conduct, who all ask for substantial incarceration to ensure the safety of the community.’’
Belcher appealed his sentence in 2017. Judge Robert J. Devlin, Jr., now the state’s first inspector general charged with investigating police officers’ use of deadly force, denied Belcher’s appeal. Belcher had claimed the sentencing court’s remarks showed that it relied on materially false information; Devlin ruled that the superpredator theory was not “information.”
Instead, Devlin found that the term “superpredator” is descriptive rather than factual, and that even though the theory has been deemed false, at the time of sentencing, the court had a reasonable basis on which to rely on the theory. Devlin’s opinion states that the “superpredator reference was just a gloss. This court has no doubt that, had Professor DiIulio repudiated his theory before sentencing, [the sentencing court] would have imposed the same sentence.’’
Mullins delved into the short history of the term “superpredator” in his opinion. DiIulio coined the word in the mid-1990s, warning that ‘‘the demographic bulge of the next  years will unleash an army of young male predatory street criminals who will make even the leaders of the Bloods and Crips … look tame by comparison.’’ He envisioned elementary school students “who pack guns instead of lunches,” predicting a crime wave committed by young people unafraid of the law, who are “perfectly capable of committing the most heinous acts of physical violence for the most trivial reason.”
DiIulio’s theory was built on the demonization of Black male teens, Mullins wrote in his opinion. The Princeton professor predicted that the number of “young Black criminals” is “likely to surge” in the coming years, and those who don’t live in Black, inner-city neighborhoods should fear “spill-over” of the moral impoverishment of “crime-prone young males.”
The myth fed racial stereotypes dating back to the founding of the country, specifically the dehumanization of Black children, Mullins wrote, portraying Black youths as vicious animals preying on the innocent. The theory was reinforced by the media coverage of the time, Mullins said, amplifying fears inspired by the racial stereotypes and perpetuating systemic racial inequities that have pervaded the criminal justice system for years.
Reeling from the media frenzy, nearly every state in the country increased its sentencing and punishment of juveniles, and Black children bore the brunt of those changes.
DiIulio’s theory was “baseless,” in Mullins’ words. Juvenile crime was already declining by the time he came up with the term in the mid-’90s; by the year 2000, the U.S. Department of Justice would publish a bulletin finding that crime rates among minors were falling from their peak in the late 1980s and early ’90s. A year later, the U.S. Office of the Surgeon General said there was no evidence to support DiIulio’s claim.
Hartmere’s reliance on the superpredator myth undermined the integrity of the sentencing procedure for two reasons, Mullins wrote.
“First, reliance on that myth invoked racial stereotypes, thus calling into question whether the defendant would have received as lengthy a sentence were he not Black,” wrote Mullins.
And second, using the superpredator theory in a sentencing decision treats characteristics of youth — impulsivity, sensitivity to peer pressure and poor judgment — as a reason to sentence a young person to a longer prison term, instead of considering those characteristics a mitigating circumstance.
“We conclude that the superpredator theory was baseless when it originally was espoused and has since been thoroughly debunked and universally rejected as a myth, and it therefore constituted false and unreliable information that a sentencing court ought not consider in crafting a sentence for a juvenile offender,” Mullins wrote.
Belcher has been in Department of Correction custody since 1995.
The Supreme Court’s decision is the latest example of state officials reconsidering lengthy sentences handed down in decades past to people who committed crimes when they were young. Over the past month, the Board of Pardons and Paroles has commuted the sentences of 11 men who committed murder, felony murder or attempted murder before they were 25.