(CN) — The 11th Circuit on Friday gave victims of Jeffrey Epstein’s underage sex ring another chance to challenge a non-prosecution deal that shields the wealthy financier’s associates from criminal liability in Florida court.
The appellate court’s decision to rehear the case en banc breathes new life into a long-running legal battle to overturn the non-prosecution deal, which insulated Epstein and his cohorts from federal charges for luring teenage girls to a Palm Beach Island mansion where he coerced them into sexual activity.
In exchange for the federal immunity, Epstein pleaded guilty in state court to soliciting underage prosecution. He ended up serving little more than a year in prison.
Courtney Wild and another plaintiff, who were among more than 30 young girls purportedly lured into the Palm Beach underage sex ring, filed the original lawsuit to overturn Epstein’s deal back in 2008. They argued that South Florida federal prosecutors violated the Crime Victims’ Rights Act by shutting victims out of the plea-negotiation process and concealing the allegedly cushy deal from them.
The law ensures victims’ right to confer with prosecutors, “to be treated with fairness” and to be timely informed about plea bargains.
Wild says she maintained confidence that her case would be heard again despite repeated legal setbacks.
“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,” Wild said in a statement Friday.
Wild’s attorney Paul Cassell described the decision to rehear the lawsuit as “a fresh start on the case.”
“Many crime victims don’t have lawyers to represent them, unlike criminal defendants who can get court-appointed attorneys. The Crime Victims’ Rights Act should be read in a common sense way so that victims who don’t have legal training can understand and protect their rights,” Cassell said in an interview.
Wild and Cassell had faced a number of courtroom setbacks since Epstein died in an apparent suicide in a New York City prison, where he was being held on newly filed sex-trafficking charges.
A district judge in September 2019 found that Wild’s request to nullify the non-prosecution deal was made moot by Epstein’s death. The judge ruled that the deal’s provisions that shielded Epstein’s cohorts from prosecution could not be voided because those parties were never joined in the litigation. He also denied the plaintiffs’ request for government restitution, noting that the Crime Victims’ Rights Act does not provide for financial damages for victims.
On appeal, Wild faced another blow when a split three-judge panel in the 11th Circuit ruled in April that the Crime Victims’ Rights Act does not protect victims before formal charges are filed. Even if plea negotiations are well underway with a soon-to-be defendant — as was the case with Epstein — victims have no rights under the Act so long as charges are not yet filed in the court record, the majority found.
The 11th Circuit’s en banc grant Friday tosses out the panel’s ruling, which had sweeping implications for victims’ rights in the court’s jurisdiction of Florida, Alabama and Georgia. The case will be taken up by the full court, as opposed to the three-judge crew.
Cassell said that Congress members who drew up the Crime Victims’ Rights Act clearly intended it to protect victims in the pre-charge phase. He cited a section in the Act which references the relief process for aggrieved victims when “no prosecution is underway.”
Wild and Cassell are now armed with a May brief from Senator Dianne Feinstein and former Senator Jon Kyl, who drafted and co-sponsored the Act.
“The plain and ordinary meaning of [the Act’s] provisions is apparent. The Act guarantees victims the right to be treated with fairness and respect and to confer with the prosecutor—during the detection, investigation, or prosecution of a crime,” Feinstein and Kyl’s brief states.
In the now-voided appellate decision, U.S. Circuit Judge Kevin Newsom wrote that extending victims’ rights under the Act to the pre-charge phase could disrupt police investigations and prosecutors’ day-to-day decisions. If the Act applied before charges are filed, courts “would be empowered to issue injunctions requiring (for instance) consultation with victims” before raids and warrant applications, the Donald Trump appointee wrote. (Parentheses in original.)
Longtime Epstein confidant Ghislaine Maxwell was arrested last month for allegedly helping Epstein recruit teenage girls to abuse in the mid-1990s. During bail proceedings, her attorneys clashed with the Department of Justice over whether the Florida non-prosecution deal is enforceable in New York, where she is facing the charges. U.S. District Judge Alison Nathan ruled July 14 that Maxwell will remain incarcerated pending trial.