Case over Jeffrey Epstein's 'sweetheart deal' could be headed for Supreme Court
An appeals court ruling left alleged Epstein victims "largely empty-handed."
On a Friday afternoon in July 2008, 20-year-old Courtney Wild appeared in federal court in West Palm Beach, Florida, demanding answers from federal prosecutors about their investigation of multi-millionaire Jeffrey Epstein, who allegedly sexually abused Wild and dozens of other underage girls at his waterfront mansion on Palm Beach Island.
Her legal action forced the government's admission that the U.S. Attorney's Office in Miami already had reached a confidential deal with Epstein several months earlier, without informing the alleged victims. Over 12 years of litigation, Wild's case ultimately exposed details of the secret negotiations between prosecutors and Epstein's high-priced legal team that led to the controversial agreement.
"Without our case, probably no one would have seen the non-prosecution agreement, the secret agreement," said Brad Edwards, an attorney for Wild. "Without that action, nobody would have known just how bad [Epstein] and his other co-conspirators were. No one would have ever understood the whole story."
But now the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled, in a 7-4 decision, that Wild's case never should have gotten off the ground. The majority of judges concluded that the federal Crime Victims' Rights Act, enacted by Congress in 2004, did not allow Wild to sue the Justice Department over Epstein's "sweetheart deal" in the absence of an existing criminal prosecution against Epstein.
Federal prosecutors drafted a 53-page indictment of Epstein in 2007 but never filed it, opting to forgo federal prosecution in exchange for Epstein's guilty pleas to two prostitution-related charges in Palm Beach County Court.
"Because the government never filed charges against Epstein, there was no pre-existing proceeding in which Ms. Wild could have moved for relief under the CVRA, and the Act does not sanction her stand-alone suit," U.S. Circuit Judge Kevin Newsom wrote in the court's majority opinion.
Newsom acknowledged that the court's decision leaves Wild and other alleged Epstein victims "largely empty handed" and without any remedy for the U.S. government's alleged mistreatment of Epstein's victims. Wild had argued for years that the Epstein deal, which also conferred immunity to any alleged co-conspirators, should be declared illegal and torn up.
"We have the profoundest sympathy for Ms. Wild and others like her, who suffered unspeakable horror at Epstein's hands, only to be left in the dark—and, so it seems, affirmatively misled—by government attorneys," Newsom wrote. "Shameful all the way around. The whole thing makes me sick."
In a dissenting opinion, Circuit Court Judge Frank Hull asserted that the court's majority decision "eviscerates the CVRA." Hull pointed to language in the CVRA that she argued allowed for Wild to seek judicial enforcement of her rights "if no prosecution is underway" by filing a motion "in the district court in the district in which the crime occurred." That is, Hull noted, exactly what Wild did in 2008.
"Ms. Wild has spent over 10 years seeking to vindicate her statutory rights expressly created by Congress. Today, the Majority tells Ms. Wild and Epstein's other victims that all of that was for naught, since they never had the right to file their motion in the first place back in 2008," Hull wrote.
Wild's attorneys told ABC News this week that they plan to ask the nation's highest court to take up the case and overturn a ruling they contend is "outrageous" and "wrong-headed."
"We plan to seek review in the U.S. Supreme Court of this unfortunate and far-reaching decision, which makes victims' rights completely unenforceable in situations where federal prosecutors cut a secret deal with wealthy defendants," said attorney Paul Cassell, a former federal judge, who, along with Edwards, has spent "several thousands of pro bono hours" on Wild's case.
"Basically," Cassell added, "what this means is if you're rich enough to hire a battery of lawyers to cut a pre-indictment deal, then you don't have to worry about the victims at all."
The ruling by the 11th Circuit effectively nullifies previous decisions by U.S. District Judge Kenneth Marra in West Palm Beach. Marra ruled in February 2019 that federal prosecutors had reached the deal with Epstein in violation of the rights of Epstein's victims. But as Marra was considering potential remedies for the government's infraction, Epstein was arrested again in July 2019 and charged in New York with federal conspiracy and sex crimes against minors. Epstein died by suicide a month later in a Manhattan federal jail, and Marra subsequently dismissed Wild's case.
Wild appealed the dismissal, contending that the Epstein deal should still be invalidated because of the government's alleged breach of its legal obligations to the victims. Her appeal received support from Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and former Republican senators Orrin Hatch of Utah and Jon Kyl of Arizona, who spearheaded the passage of the Crime Victims' Rights Act in 2004. In a court filing, the lawmakers contended that the "miscarriage of justice" in the Epstein case was "precisely what the Act prevents."
"That's a bit awkward for the [court] majority to tell us that Congress never meant to do something when the three leading congressional sponsors of that very same act said, 'Yes, we did.'" Cassell said.
Cassell and Edwards acknowledge that the odds are against them in their pursuit of review by Supreme Court, which hears only about 2% of the cases presented to it each year. But Wild's attorneys also are pushing for passage of a pending U.S. House bill, the "Courtney Wild Crime Victims' Rights Reform Act," that would amend the CVRA to better protect victims. They credit Wild, now a 33-year-old mother of two, for her perseverance in her protracted legal battle for accountability.
"If the Supreme Court turns us down, then she is 100% all on board for testifying before Congress and making sure this doesn't happen again," Edwards said. "Her attitude is, 'Look, I'm proud of the fight. I'm proud of exposing the bad that the government did.' She's definitely a fighter. She's not about to quit."