August 8, 2020
MIMI NGUYEN LY
Alleged victims of deceased convicted sex-trafficker Jeffrey Epstein will have a chance to challenge a federal non-prosecution agreement—often referred to as Epstein’s “sweetheart” plea deal—that was signed more than a decade ago.
Courtney Wild, an Epstein accuser originally known as Jane Doe 1, as well as another plaintiff known as Jane Doe 2, had filed an original lawsuit in 2008 to overturn the non-prosecution agreement. They argued that the Department of Justice (DOJ) prosecutors had violated their rights under the 2004 Crime Victims’ Rights Act (CRVA) by sealing the deal without consulting with or informing the alleged victims.
The Atlanta-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit court ruled on Friday (pdf) that the alleged victims will have their case reheard en banc—a legal term to mean that a case gets to be heard before the entire bench of a court, rather than just by a panel of judges selected from the bench. The decision vacates a previous 11th Circuit three-judge panel’s 2-1 ruling in April that had rejected Wild’s argument.
“I had confidence this day would come,” Wild said in a statement to media outlets. “We have fought for 12 years, and as I’ve said before, no matter how many obstacles pile up, we will never give up fighting for what is right.”
‘Sweetheart Plea Deal’
The non-prosecution agreement was signed in 2007 with the DOJ through the Southern District of Florida in Miami. Former Secretary of Labor Alex Acosta was the U.S. Attorney at the time. Acosta resigned after Epstein was arrested under separate new charges in July 2019.
The plea deal relates to when Epstein was previously charged in 2007 with operating an international child sex ring involving at least 30 underage girls, of which Wild was allegedly a part of, at Epstein’s Palm Beach mansion and Little St. James Island—a 72-acre private island estate in the Caribbean.
The plea deal, as shown attached in a recent federal court filing (pdf), involved Epstein pleading guilty in 2008 to just two felony counts of soliciting an underage prostitute in state court, rather than federal court. Epstein had to register as a sex offender. Epstein also provided undisclosed information to authorities under the deal.
In exchange, Epstein avoided serious time behind bars, serving just under 13 months in a private section of the Palm Beach County jail in Florida. During that time, he was afforded a work-release program that allowed him to leave the jail for 12 hours each day, six days a week, and work unsupervised at his downtown West Palm Beach office. Epstein’s 13-month sentence is believed to be one of the most lenient in U.S. history for a sex offender.
Epstein’s lawyers had argued that according to the plea deal, he was immune to any new federal charges for crimes committed during the time period of around 2001 through around September 2007.
Ghislaine Maxwell, Epstein’s longtime associate, now faces charges of helping Epstein recruit and eventually abuse girls from 1994 to 1997, and is being jailed in New York. If convicted, she faces up to 35 years in prison.
U.S. District Judge Kenneth Marra in February 2019 ruled (pdf) that prosecutors of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Florida, including Acosta, broke the law (the CRVA) when they did not inform the alleged 30 victims of the plea deal in 2007.
In September 2019, Marra ruled to close the case brought by Wild and Jane Doe 2, thereby not scrapping the 2007 plea deal.
He denied almost every request for relief, including ruling that they were are not owed any money damages from the U.S. government, and refused to fulfill their demand that the government turn over FBI records linked to its investigation of Epstein. He also said that Epstein’s death in August 2019 made the case moot.
In an opinion, Marra wrote that the alleged victims’ request for restitution is “essentially a request for money damages from the government, which is not allowed under the CVRA.”
In a challenge to Marra’s decision, Wild filed a petition with the appeals court in October 2019, asking the court to order Marra to provide relief to the alleged sex victims. In April, the 11th Circuit three-judge panel ruled (pdf) that the CRVA does not protect alleged victims before formal charges are filed. At the time the plea deal was struck, no charges were filed.
The latest appeals court ruling on Friday nullifies the three-judge panel’s ruling.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and former Sens. Orin Hatch (R-Utah) and Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), who drafted and co-sponsored the CRVA, had filed an amicus brief (pdf) in May in support of Wild’s petition for rehearing en banc.
“This is an important ruling for crime victims, not just for Epstein’s victims but all victims of federal crimes,” Wild’s lawyers, Paul Cassell and Brad Edwards, told the Miami Herald on Friday. “We look forward to arguing before the full Eleventh Circuit that [the] ‘secret’ plea deal violates the Crime Victims’ Rights Act and that this particular deal should be rescinded.”Follow Mimi on Twitter: @MimiNguyenLy