ATLANTA (CN) — Continuing a decade-long battle between federal prosecutors and victims of Jeffrey Epstein’s underage sex ring, an attorney for one victim asked the en banc 11th Circuit on Thursday for another chance to challenge a plea deal shielding the investment tycoon’s co-conspirators from criminal liability.
During a hearing held via Zoom conference, an attorney for Courtney Wild argued that federal prosecutors violated the Crime Victims’ Rights Act by keeping her and other victims in the dark about the late billionaire financier’s cushy non-prosecution deal in Florida.
Wild, who is one of more than 30 victims allegedly lured by Epstein to his Palm Beach Island mansion for sex, sued to overturn the deal in 2008. The lawsuit sought compensation from the government, sealed documents from the criminal case and a court order voiding the plea deal.
The non-prosecution agreement protected Epstein and his associates from facing federal charges. In exchange for federal immunity, Epstein pleaded guilty in state court to soliciting underage prostitution. He received an 18-month sentence but served only 13 months, much of which he spent outside his cell as part of a work-release program.
Attorney Paul Cassell of the University of Utah College of Law told the 11th Circuit judges Thursday that the law, known as the CVRA, affords victims the opportunity to be informed about plea bargains during the pre-charge phase of criminal proceedings.
A Florida federal judge last year ruled that Wild’s request to nullify the deal was rendered moot by Epstein’s August 2019 suicide in prison. The judge also found that the law specifically bars actions for monetary damages against the government even if victims’ rights are violated.
Cassell asked the court to remand the case back to Florida federal court so the deal can be invalidated. He said his client is merely asking for the chance to confer with prosecutors.
“Ms. Wild can be very persuasive about why charges should be filed in this case. That’s the opportunity Congress gave her in the CVRA and that’s the opportunity she’s entitled to,” he said.
Cassell has argued that any conferral with federal prosecutors is “meaningless” while the non-prosecution deal is in place because it shields Epstein’s aides from facing charges.
U.S. Circuit Judge Charles Wilson, a Bill Clinton appointee, expressed concerns that Cassell’s interpretation of the law could unjustly impede plea deals in future cases.
“Mr. Epstein was a pretty bad guy, but you’re asking the court to apply precedent that will apply in future cases that may not be as bad as this one,” Wilson said. “If we accept your reading of the Act, how does a U.S. attorney enter into a non-prosecution agreement with the subject of an investigation who is cooperating and the cooperation requires confidentiality without which the safety of the cooperator may be jeopardized or the investigation may be compromised?”
But Cassell argued that prosecutors’ decision to shut Wild and other victims out of the process impeded their right to be treated fairly by the government.
Senior U.S. Circuit Judge Frank Hull, another Bill appointee, noted Thursday that the government did not speak to the victims “at all” during the “literal months” of negotiations with Epstein’s defense attorneys.
Department of Justice attorneys concealed the September 2007 non-prosecution agreement from the victims during negotiations and after the deal was finalized.
U.S. Circuit Judge Elizabeth Branch, a Donald Trump appointee, said Thursday that the U.S. attorney’s office did not send a letter notifying victims of the plea deal until January 2008.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jill Steinberg admitted Thursday that the U.S. attorney’s office “should have communicated to Ms. Wild in a transparent and straightforward way” but said that Cassell’s legal arguments are “incorrect.”
Branch pointed out that the U.S. attorney’s office notified victims of their rights under the law in 2008, after Epstein had already signed the non-prosecution agreement, and “asked for their patience as the case was under investigation.”
“Now the government says these victims have no CVRA rights. What changed?” Branch asked.
Steinberg said the “clarity of the issue” had shifted.
“What the assistant U.S. attorney explained was she wanted to give as broad protection to the victims as possible. Unfortunately, in doing so I think people might have felt misled. People like Ms. Wild might have felt misled,” she said. “In terms of what the strict requirements are of the CVRA, that never changed. So I think it’s sort of a learning lesson for people in my position to be careful about what it is that we say and distinguish between policy and what we want to do as good human beings and what it is that the law requires.”
Steinberg argued that the CVRA does not “attach” until the government has filed charges against a defendant and warned that victims could seriously impede criminal proceedings if they are allowed to sue prosecutors and seek discovery while a case is under investigation.
“This would interfere with prosecutorial discretion and harm efforts by law enforcement to bring charges and obtain convictions against individuals such as Mr. Epstein,” she said.
The 11th Circuit did not indicate when it will reach a decision in the case.
If the court rules to uphold its three-judge panel’s prior decision, it would create a split with the Fifth Circuit, which held in 2008 that victims’ rights under the CVRA extend into the pre-charging phase. The split would likely land the case before the U.S. Supreme Court.