Court rejects petition for crime victims in Epstein case

Today in a divided 2-1 decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit rejected a petition for crime victims in the Jeffrey Epstein case, filed by Florida attorney Bradley J. Edwards and University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law Professor Paul Cassell.   The Circuit held that the Crime Victims’ Rights Act (CVRA) does not apply until federal criminal charges are formally filed, and therefore Epstein’s victims were not entitled to challenge a plea arrangement reached between federal prosecutors and Epstein.

The case involves more than 11 years of litigation by Epstein’s victims, seeking to overturn a non-prosecution agreement entered into by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Florida with Epstein, blocking his prosecution (and that of his co-conspirators) for child sex abuse crimes in Florida.  In the decision, the majority said that the facts tell “a tale of national disgrace,” including “active misrepresentation” by federal prosecutors to Epstein’s victims to conceal what they were doing to keep Epstein from being federally prosecuted.

Paul G. Cassell, a Ronald N. Boyce Presidential Professor of Criminal Law at the University of Utah’s S.J. Quinney College of Law. Photo by Benjamin Hager.

But the ruling also states that, because no federal criminal charges were ever filed in Florida, Epstein’s victims (girls whom he sexually abused) did not have any right to confer about the plea arrangements because the CVRA was never in effect.  In reaching this conclusion, the Circuit noted that Cassell had written a law review article, in which he had explained why the CVRA can apply even before federal criminal charges are filed. But while the Circuit thought that Cassell was “one of the nation’s foremost authorities on victims’-rights issues,” it could not agree with his position.

In a sixty-page dissent, Judge Frank M. Hull noted the importance of the ruling:  “The Majority confesses that ‘[i]t isn’t lost on us that our decision leaves petitioner and others like her largely emptyhanded’ and ‘we sincerely regret that.’  In addition to ruminating in sincere regret and sympathy, we, as federal judges, should also enforce the plain text of the CVRA—which we are bound to do—and ensure that these crime victims have the CVRA rights that Congress has granted them.”

Cassell and Edwards plan to file a petition for rehearing en banc with the full Eleventh Circuit in the next three weeks.