A judge ruled Thursday that prosecutors, including Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta, violated federal law when they arranged a plea deal for the multimillionaire Jeffrey Epstein, who spent just 13 months in jail despite being accused of trafficking underage girls and personally abusing scores of young victims. According to the judge, the prosecutors violated the rights of Epstein’s victims by arranging the plea deal secretly.
In his opinion, District Judge Kenneth Marra said that Acosta, who was then the U.S. attorney in Miami, should have prosecuted Epstein under federal sex trafficking laws. “Epstein used paid employees to find and bring minor girls to him,” Marra wrote. “Epstein worked in concert with others to obtain minors not only for his own sexual gratification, but also for the sexual gratification of others.”
According to the Miami Herald, Marra’s ruling gives the government 15 days to speak with Epstein’s victims and come up with a resolution. The case will likely not overturn Epstein’s sentence.
In an investigation published last fall, the Herald reported that Epstein’s lawyers, a team that included Alan Dershowitz (who has himself denied allegations he had sex with underage girls at Epstein’s “direction”) and Ken Starr, were largely allowed to set the terms of their client’s plea deal.
The Herald identified more than 80 possible victims who said Epstein, a powerful and well-connected man, had molested them when they were teenagers. Many were from low-income or unstable homes, and they said Epstein coerced them into sex acts after paying them for massages, often repeatedly. At least one victim alleged a violent rape. Meanwhile, others accused Epstein of using an international modeling agency to traffic underage girls from Europe, Ecuador, and Brazil.
In 2008, Epstein pleaded guilty to two prostitution-related charges in state court and was sent to serve 13 months in a private wing of the Palm Beach, Florida, county jail. During that time, he was allowed to leave six days a week for up to 12 hours at a time to work out of his office. He was also registered as a sex offender and ordered to pay restitution to three dozen victims identified by the FBI.
More outrageous than its leniency was the way the deal quashed other lines of investigation. The plea deal effectively shuttered an ongoing FBI investigation into whether there were other guilty parties—possibly other wealthy and powerful people—and guaranteed Epstein and any co-conspirators immunity from federal prosecution. Acosta has said that Epstein’s legal team intimidated him and the other prosecutors out of taking the case to trial. Emails between Acosta and the lawyers published by the Herald showed that Acosta explicitly allowed Epstein’s lawyers to set the terms of the deal.
And in what Marra found this week to be a violation of the law, the prosecution sealed the deal, preventing Epstein’s victims from being able to protest its terms or speak at Epstein’s sentencing.
That decision, Marra found, was in violation of the federal Crime Victims’ Rights Act, which guarantees victims the right to be notified of any court proceedings and to speak with prosecutors about possible plea deals. Two of Epstein’s victims filed a lawsuit in Florida based on those rights in 2008.
After the Herald investigation was published, House Democrats called for the Department of Justice to investigate Acosta. At his confirmation hearing in 2017, Acosta was questioned about the plea deal and defended it, saying, “Based on the evidence, professionals within a prosecutor’s office decided that a plea that guarantees someone goes to jail, that guarantees he register [as a sex offender] generally and guarantees other outcomes, is a good thing.”