WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (CN) - A lawyer for victims of Jeffrey Epstein claims in Florida federal court that the wealthy sex offender's death in prison has removed a final obstacle to rescinding plea-deal protections that shielded conspirators in his teenage prostitution ring from prosecution.
For more than a decade, victims' attorney Brad Edwards has been on a legal crusade to rescind Epstein's favorable 2007 plea deal in an underage prostitution case in which Epstein was accused of victimizing dozens of Florida girls as young as 14 years old.
Under the deal, Epstein avoided federal charges, pleaded guilty to soliciting prostitution under Florida state law and agreed to pay damages to victims. He spent little more than a year in prison, during which time he was granted a work-release privilege, allowing him to leave his cell and spend his days in a business office.
The plea deal included a key clause that protected Epstein's assistants Sarah Kellen, Nadia Marcinkova and others who allegedly helped bring underage girls to Epstein's Palm Beach mansion for sensual massage sessions.
Kellen was named in several Palm Beach lawsuits over the underage sex ring. The plaintiffs accused her of arranging meetings between them and Epstein at his mansion, when they were in their early teenage years. They said Kellen helped recruit and pay them, and that she prepared oils for the massage room where dozens of teenagers were coaxed into engaging in sexual activity with Epstein.
The plea deal stated that if Epstein complied with his end of the bargain, "the United States ... agrees that it will not institute any criminal charges against any potential co-conspirators of Epstein." The document mentions Kellen, Marcinkova and Lesley Groff by name.
Epstein died in the Metropolitan Correctional Center in New York City over the weekend. The Bureau of Prisons called it an apparent suicide.
He was imprisoned there on sex-trafficking charges brought against him in July by New York federal prosecutors, after a wave of national media coverage focused on now-resigned Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta's role in the controversial Florida plea deal. Acosta oversaw the deal through his then-role as a prosecutor for the Southern District of Florida.
With Epstein out of the picture, attorney Edwards claims in a court brief filed Monday that there is little reason left for the Florida court to keep the protections against Epstein's alleged conspirators in place.
First off, Edwards says, Epstein was the only plea-deal beneficiary to intervene in the victims' lawsuit challenging the deal. Now that Epstein is dead, the legal arguments pertaining to his personal interests in the plea deal are moot, Edwards argues.
The attorney notes that the staff who allegedly organized Epstein's sex ring might have had standing to intervene in the court case.
"But as this court is well aware, this case has spanned more than eleven years, and no one has sought intervention as a third-party beneficiary of Epstein’s [non-prosecution agreement]," Edwards says.
Prior to Epstein's death, the Department of Justice argued the plea deal should be kept in place because rescinding it could do away with provisions beneficial to victims. For instance, the department said, if the deal was rescinded, Epstein could claim he was no longer bound by the provision where he accepted liability for victims' civil damages.
According to Edwards' Monday filing, that objection is no longer viable in light of Epstein's death.
"The only objections that the government raised to rescinding the [non-prosecution agreement] were, first, unfairness to Epstein and, second, the possibility that Epstein might seek to recapture various financial payments made to some victims," Edwards wrote on behalf of two putative victims.
"Neither objection retains any viability in the wake of Epstein’s death," the attorney said.
The attorney secured a key victory in the Florida court proceedings in February, when the presiding judge ruled federal prosecutors violated the Crime Victims' Rights Act by not conferring with victims during plea negotiations. The judge’s order cites emails in which the Department of Justice repeatedly misled victims’ lawyers to believe the investigation of Epstein was ongoing.
“Particularly problematic was the government’s decision to conceal the existence of the [non-prosecution agreement] and mislead the victims to believe that federal prosecution was still a possibility,” the ruling states.
The judge is still mulling over what remedies are appropriate to address the Department of Justice's noncompliance with the Crime Victims' Rights Act.
The Justice Department said in a court filing that it regrets how its staff treated victims during the plea negotiations. It stopped short of issuing a formal apology, saying that doing so was not a "cognizable" legal remedy under the Act.
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