TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – For the second time, lawyers representing one of notorious sex offender Jeffrey Epstein’s numerous underage victims tried to persuade an appellate court Thursday that an agreement hatched by federal prosecutors and the late financier’s attorneys violated a victims’ rights law.
Courtney Wild, a Florida woman who as a teen was sexually abused by Epstein, has been on a 12-year legal crusade to undo a non-prosecution agreement that allowed Epstein and other alleged abusers to evade federal sex charges.
While conceding that the facts of the case were “beyond scandalous” and a “national disgrace, a three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in April concluded that the agreement did not violate the federal Crime Victims’ Rights Act.
But the Atlanta-based appeals court later vacated that ruling and ordered an “en banc,” or full court, hearing on the issues in the case.
Prosecutors argue that the victims’ rights act does not apply to Wild and other victims because Epstein was never charged with a federal crime.
But Wild’s lawyers maintain the non-prosecution agreement violated her rights under the act to be able to confer with the government’s lawyers and to be treated fairly by them. Wild is seeking to undo the non-prosecution agreement so that Epstein’s alleged co-conspirators can be punished for crimes perpetrated against her and other young girls.
During Thursday’s hearing, Judge Beverly Martin asked Paul Cassell, an attorney for Wild, what a legal “win” would allow Wild to achieve.
A victory would allow her to assert and have her rights under the victims’ rights act to be considered, Cassell, a University of Utah law professor, said.
“She has an opportunity to confer with prosecutors. That’s all we’re asking for,” he said.
Department of Justice lawyer Jill Steinberg acknowledged that the prosecutors in Florida “should have communicated to Ms. Wild in a transparent and straightforward way” more than a decade ago about the deal, which was authorized by former South Florida U.S. Attorney Alex Acosta.
“Although we are sympathetic to Ms. Wild and apologize to her for what happened, her legal arguments are incorrect,” Steinberg told the court Thursday.
Steinberg warned of a “danger” if victims are allowed to sue prosecutors “and seek discovery while the case is under investigation.”
Under questioning by Judge Andrew Brasher, Steinberg said Justice Department representatives have “made efforts” to confer with Wild and her lawyers about the case since she first filed her lawsuit in 2008.
But Cassell disagreed.
“There’s never been conferral in a meaningful way. She wants to go to the prosecutors in Florida and say, ‘Prosecute the men and women in Florida who abused me.’ And the U.S. attorney’s position is, ‘We can’t because we’ve signed a non-prosecution agreement.’ So conferral is meaningless,” he told the court.
The non-prosecution agreement led to the political downfall of Acosta, who was forced to step down in 2018 as U.S. labor secretary in President Donald Trump’s administration amid an outcry about the secret deal involving Epstein. The outcry was sparked by reports in the Miami Herald.
Under the deal first approved by Acosta in 2007, Epstein sidestepped federal charges and agreed to plea guilty to two state prostitution charges, including procuring a minor for sex. The plea deal also provided immunity from federal prosecution for Epstein, four other named co-conspirators and “any potential co-conspirators.”
After the plea agreement on state charges, Epstein was arrested in July 2019 and charged with federal sex-trafficking offenses involving minor girls from Florida and other places. He was found dead in a jail cell a month later in what was deemed a suicide.
In addition to Epstein, the agreement provided immunity to four women --- Sarah Kellen, Adriana Ross, Lesley Groff and Nadia Marcinkova --- and other unidentified people.
During Thursday’s hearing, Judge Frank Hull pressed Steinberg about the government’s failure to notify Epstein’s victims about the non-prosecution agreement months after state and federal prosecutors and Epstein’s lawyers had authorized the deal.
“Is there any reason why you could not have told the victims?” Hull asked. “Why did the government not only not tell the victims but misrepresent things?”
“I’m in a bit of a disadvantage because I was not the person who made those decisions,” Steinberg said. “I can only rely on what those people have said in the underlying litigation, and the position that they took is that, until Mr. Epstein actually fulfilled his part of the bargain and pled guilty, the NPA (non-prosecution agreement) had not been fulfilled and the investigation continued until the very moment he stepped into that courtroom.”
After working with Epstein’s legal team on the agreement, federal prosecutors in December 2007 and again in January 2008 advised Wild and other victims that the case was “currently under investigation.” Epstein pleaded guilty to the state charges more than five months later, but his victims never were apprised of the hearing or the agreement until after it was finalized.
Judge Robert Luck noted Thursday that prosecutors twice wrote to victims to explain their rights and ask for patience.
“Now you say the government says that these victims have no CVRA (Crime Victims’ Rights Act) rights. What changed?” Luck asked Steinberg.
“I think what changed is, really, the, I guess, clarity of the issue,” Steinberg said. “People like Ms. Wild might have felt misled, but in terms of what the strict requirements are of the CVRA, that never changed.”