A federal judge ruled Thursday, Feb. 21, that prosecutors at the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Florida broke the law when arranging a controversial plea deal for accused child sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein.
Epstein, a wealthy, politically connected former New York City hedge fund manager with a Palm Beach, Florida, mansion, spent only 13 months in a private area of the Palm Beach County jail while being accused of molesting more than 100 underage girls over an eight-year period.
He allegedly operated an international child sex ring at his Palm Beach mansion and 72-acre private island estate in the Caribbean. The minor-aged girls, mostly 13 to 16 years old, were often transported from the United States to his island estate on his private jet.
According to U.S. District Judge Kenneth Marra’s 33-page opinion, Epstein and his co-conspirators “knowingly traveled in interstate and international commerce” to commit sexual abuse and other “violations of not only Florida law, but also federal law.”
“In addition to his own sexual abuse of the victims, Epstein directed other persons to abuse the girls sexually,” the ruling stated.
“Epstein used paid employees to find and bring minor girls to him. Epstein worked in concert with others to obtain minors not only for his own sexual gratification but also for the sexual gratification of others,” the ruling continued.
But instead of prosecuting Epstein, now 66, the U.S. Attorney’s Office negotiated a nonprosecution agreement, or NPA, which gave Epstein, his accomplices, and his Palm Beach and private island guests immunity from federal prosecution if he met the terms of the deal.
The NPA was also sealed, which had the effect of keeping Epstein’s victims uninformed about the plea negotiations occurring between federal prosecutors and Epstein’s team of super-lawyers until after his lenient sentencing in 2008. That was a violation of law, Marra determined.
“The court is simply ruling that, under the facts of this case, there was a violation of the victims’ rights under the Crime Victims’ Rights Act,” he concluded.
A Deviation From Standard Practice
Two of Epstein’s underage victims, known as Jane Doe 1 and Jane Doe 2, filed a lawsuit in the Southern District of Florida after the 2008 surprise sentencing on the grounds that they were never given an opportunity to express their opposition to the plea. Thursday’s judgment affirmed their claim, albeit 11 years later.
The ruling noted that the FBI had given Jane Doe 1 a standard Crime Victims’ Rights Act, or CVRA, notification letter in September 2007. The letter promised a “reasonable right to confer with the attorney for the United States in the case,” and “to be reasonably heard at any public proceeding in the district court involving [a]…plea.”
But from the time the FBI began investigating Epstein until the plea deal was finalized, the U.S. Attorney’s Office never contacted the victims about the plea or even told them a plea was under consideration, according to the judge.
Epstein’s lawyers that included Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz and former Clinton-era independent counsel Kenneth Starr, were aware that federal prosecutors were “deliberately keeping the NPA secret from the victims, and, indeed, had sought assurances to that effect.”
“It was a deviation from the government’s standard practice to negotiate with defense counsel about the extent of crime victim notifications,” the decision said.
But on top of keeping the victims in the dark, the judge also determined that prosecutors were actually misleading the victims into believing that federal prosecution was a possibility.
“While the government spent untold hours negotiating the terms and implications of the NPA with Epstein’s attorneys, scant information was shared with victims. Instead, the victims were told to be ‘patient’ while the investigation proceeded,” the ruling stated.
The victims and the U.S. Attorney’s Office were given 15 days from Thursday’s ruling to inform the court of how they wish to proceed.
Although the case occurred more than a decade ago, renewed interest has invigorated the highest levels of the U.S. government.
On Feb. 6, the Department of Justice (DOJ) opened an investigation into possible professional misconduct regarding the U.S. attorney’s handling of the case.
Despite facing a potential life sentence in federal prison under human trafficking laws, Epstein was allowed to plead guilty to two state prostitution charges amounting to 18 months in county jail, although he served only 13 months.
The deal also allowed Epstein to leave the jail for 12 hours a day, six days a week, and work unsupervised at his downtown West Palm Beach office. And in addition to affording his co-conspirators immunity, and in many cases anonymity, the NPA provided that it would not be available under public records laws.
“If the United States receives a Freedom of Information Act request or any compulsory process commanding the disclosure of the agreement, it will provide notice to Epstein before making that disclosure,” Judge Marra noted in his decision.
U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse, (R-Neb.), has taken particular interest in the case. He recently sent two separate letters to the DOJ urging an investigation of the plea deal—one on Dec. 3, and another Jan. 14.
On Jan. 15, Sasse pressed President Donald Trump’s U.S. attorney general, William Barr, for a commitment to investigate the plea deal during his confirmation testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
“If I’m confirmed, I’ll make sure your questions are answered,” Barr said at the time.
When the DOJ opened its internal investigation on Feb. 6, Sasse issued a strongly worded statement.
“Jeffrey Epstein is a child rapist and there’s not a single mom or dad in America who shouldn’t be horrified by the fact that he received a pathetically soft sentence,” Sasse said.
“The victims of Epstein’s child sex-trafficking ring deserve this investigation—and so do the American people and the members of law enforcement who work to put these kinds of monsters behind bars,” he said.