South Florida

Epstein sex abuse victims press judge for decision on tossing lenient plea deal

Victims of accused sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein, who have waged a decade-long fight for justice, on Monday pressed a federal judge to finally take action on their motion to throw out a controversial plea agreement that gave the politically connected multimillionaire immunity from federal prosecution.

Lawyers for Epstein’s victims filed the request in the Southern District of Florida, asking judge Kenneth Marra to either make a decision or set a date for a hearing on the motion to vacate the deal. That request, which many legal experts consider a long shot, has been awaiting his ruling for more than a year.

Epstein, 65, was given what victims’ advocates consider one of the most lenient plea deals for a serial sex offender in history. The New York hedge fund manager faced a possible life sentence for molesting dozens — and perhaps hundreds — of underage girls at his Palm Beach mansion from 2001 to 2006, according to federal court documents.

But in 2008, then-Miami U.S. Attorney Alexander Acosta signed a non-prosecution agreement that allowed Epstein to plead guilty to two prostitution charges in state court. In exchange, the FBI dropped its probe into whether Epstein was operating an international sex trafficking network, and also granted federal immunity to his co-conspirators — four of whom were identified, and others who have never been named.

Epstein served 13 months in the Palm Beach County Jail, where he was let out almost every day for work release under the supervision of Palm Beach sheriff’s deputies whom he hired as his own private security detail. He was released in 2009.

Acosta, now President Donald Trump’s U.S. secretary of labor, has been facing an avalanche of criticism since last week, when the Miami Herald published a series of stories detailing how Acosta and others in his office worked closely with Epstein’s high-powered attorneys to conceal the scope of Epstein’s crimes from both his underage victims and the public.

Courtney Wild, who was 14 when she was first brought to Epstein’s mansion, said she has been heartened by public support for her ordeal, which she shared with the Herald after years of silence. She and other victims had been labeled as Jane Does to protect their identities. She is now 31.

“This is overwhelmingly meaningful because no one has reacted to what happened, and treated us as victims the whole time,’’ Wild said. “Finally, something is going to happen. We are waiting on a court date.’’

Wild is one of two Epstein victims who filed a federal lawsuit in 2008 seeking to invalidate his plea deal, arguing that it was illegal because it violated the federal Crime Victims’ Rights Act, which affords victims certain rights, including the right to be told about plea agreements and the right to appear at sentencings.

Epstein’s deal was negotiated, signed and sealed in secret so that no one — not even his victims — would know the details. As a consequence, they weren’t given the opportunity to appear at his sentencing where they could have persuaded the judge to reject such a soft punishment.

In court papers, federal prosecutors have admitted they failed to inform Epstein’s victims about the non-prosecution agreement, but they contend that failure was not intentional.

Palm Beach attorney Jack Scarola, who represented some of Epstein’s victims in other federal civil cases, filed Monday’s motion in an effort to nudge the court into finally issuing a ruling on the 10-year-old case. The case history has more than 400 docket entries and includes thousands of motions, filings and transcripts.

Bradley Edwards and Paul Cassell, the lawyers who brought the case against the federal government, filed their motion for partial summary judgment well over a year ago, asking the judge to void Epstein’s plea deal. In it, they outlined evidence that federal prosecutors colluded with Epstein’s lawyers to violate their clients’ rights under the federal law.

“The focus of attention on this case is going to make it more difficult for the Government to want anything but an appropriate prosecution of Jeffrey Epstein,’’ Scarola said.

The Herald was unsuccessful in reaching Epstein’s lawyer, Jack Goldberger, on Monday.

Acosta has not responded to multiple requests for comment.

Scarola, who joined the case this week, said Epstein will likely argue that it would be unfair to invalidate the deal since he complied with all of its terms.

“But,’’ Scarola said, “this was a deal he knew was illegal at the outset. The fact that you chose to rely on it doesn’t afford you any protections, especially since the aspect of the contract that was illegal you expressly argued for.’’

It’s not unheard of for a non-prosecution agreement to be nullified, experts say, but usually it happens as a result of one party violating its end of the bargain. What, if any, legal basis there is for the two victims to prevail in what will likely be a landmark decision remains unclear.

“We’re kind of breaking new ground,” said Jeff Dion, director for the National Crime Victim Bar Association.

Another civil case that could have given the victims a forum to be heard was settled Dec. 4 before it got underway. It’s unlikely that the federal case will fill that void, Dion said. A judge will likely rule based on the facts presented by lawyers, without victim testimony. Even if the judge decides for the victims, Epstein would likely appeal, adding up to a year or longer to the litigation.

Bruce Rogow, a veteran Florida trial lawyer who has argued more than 450 civil and criminal cases in federal and state appellate courts, said the only similar case he can recall was a 2002 state appeal case. In that, the state agreed a victim of a jewelry theft had their rights to compensation denied due to short notice of a trial court date, but the decision was negated on appeal.

Rogow, a professor emeritus at Nova Southeastern University’s College of Law who has represented Trump in past civil cases, said setting aside a deal involving a sentence that has already been served years ago is highly unlikely.

“The prosecutor, the judge, have the obligation to provide notice. Failure is theirs, but that does not lead to reopening the sentence,” he said in an email.

Cassell, a former federal judge and Utah law professor who represents Epstein’s victims, has filed voluminous pleadings, arguing that the Crime Victims Rights Act was passed by Congress to protect crime victims from exactly what happened in the Epstein case: They were left in the dark and never treated as real victims.

However, while the Crime Victims’ Rights Act grants victims certain rights, it doesn’t state what the repercussions are for violating those rights.

Francey Hakes, a former federal prosecutor, sees the suit’s legal path as a near-certain dead end, but said anything is possible, including action on the part of the U.S. Department of Justice.

“I don’t know whether there are any remedies that will satisfy what will happen to the victims,” Hakes said.

Last week, more than two dozen federal lawmakers demanded a Justice Department probe into the case and specifically, to what role Acosta had in brokering a deal with the financier.

Epstein’s victims have long theorized that he escaped serious charges in part because of his friendships with powerful people, including former president Bill Clinton, President Trump, and many lawmakers, celebrities and royalty.

A women’s group, Ultraviolet Action, has also started a petition calling for Acosta’s impeachment, saying he is unfit to hold an office that oversees an agency that enforces labor laws and protections against human trafficking.

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