Revival of a high-profile sex-crime case offers hints of a deeper justice

Why We Wrote This

The investigation into Jeffrey Epstein's 2008 plea deal raises concerns about how perpetrators are held accountable. But incremental change since that time suggests progress on prosecution of sex crimes and fairness for victims.

Jae C. Hong/AP
Protesters gather for a march against sexual violence in Los Angeles early this year. Survivors of sexual assault have continued to press for more changes to the justice system.

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The investigation into the Jeffrey Epstein plea deal, another landmark in the #MeToo era, raises the question of how far society has come in the effort to hold perpetrators of sex crimes accountable – and to restore to victims the sense of worthiness often stolen from them twice, once by the victimizer and again by inadequate systems of justice. Efforts by law enforcement, advocates, and researchers show some progress on these fronts. In Tennessee, lawmakers have been persuaded to prohibit charging minors with prostitution and since 2011 have passed about 40 more laws to better address trafficking. And even in the years leading up to the Epstein case, federal prosecutors in southern Florida were already trying to get the maximum prison time for such crimes. Better-informed juries have also emerged as survivors of sexual assault have stepped forward to tell the media their stories. Michael Dolce, a survivor and a Florida-based lawyer who works on such cases, sees a noticeable shift. “People seem to understand better why delayed reporting occurs, what the impact is of sex crimes … and how sex criminals mislead people into believing that they're safe when they’re not.” 

In 2008, multimillionaire Jeffrey Epstein went to jail for 13 months after pleading guilty to state child sex crime charges.

He had struck a plea deal with prosecutors, allowing him to avoid potential federal charges of sexually molesting and trafficking a network of girls at his Palm Beach, Fla., mansion and elsewhere. Such a case, if proved, could have led to life in prison, the Miami Herald reported last week.

The investigative series lays out how Mr. Epstein’s connections appear to have contributed to a lenient sentence. It has prompted calls for a Department of Justice investigation, as well as scrutiny of Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta, who oversaw the plea deal as the US attorney for the Southern District of Florida at the time.

Another landmark in the #MeToo era, it raises the question of how far society has come in the effort to hold perpetrators of sex crimes accountable – and to restore to victims the sense of worthiness often stolen from them twice, once by the victimizer and again by inadequate systems of justice.

“This is the only crime that I’m aware of where routinely the victim is put on trial,” accused of making up stories to get money, for instance, or of consenting when barely a teenager, says Michael Dolce, a survivor of childhood sexual assault and a Florida-based lawyer who works on such cases at Cohen Milstein.

A number of civil cases against Epstein have been settled. And this week, a legal dispute between Epstein and one of the lawyers representing some of his accusers was also settled, closing the door to an anticipated opportunity for them to testify. But they haven’t given up hope for more criminal charges because a case is pending against the US government that could void the plea deal. They say the deal was kept secret from victims in violation of a federal law requiring crime victims to be kept informed.

Uma Sanghvi/Palm Beach Post/AP/File
Jeffrey Epstein appears in custody in West Palm Beach, Fla., July 30, 2008. Progress has been made in sex-crime prosecutions and victim services since the time Mr. Epstein made what some observers refer to as a 'sweetheart deal.'

“As soon as that deal was signed, they silenced my voice and the voices of all of Jeffrey Epstein’s other victims,” Courtney Wild told the Herald. She was 14 when she met Epstein, and said she was lured into what investigators describe as a sexual pyramid scheme, with girls being paid to bring other girls to Epstein.

Roy Black, one of Epstein's lawyers, has denied that Epstein received a “sweetheart deal” and conspired to violate victims’ rights, The Associated Press reports.

Progress has been made in sex-crime prosecutions and victim services, a variety of experts say. Yet the Epstein story can help expose underlying attitudes still in need of an overhaul: the minimization and blame people commonly face when they report sex crimes. 

‘A demand-driven crime’

In the years that the Epstein case and its aftermath were playing out in Florida, Marjorie Quin was helping to bring about a sea change in the handling of child sex crimes and trafficking in Tennessee.

When she began overseeing missing-child cases for the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) in 2007, as an assistant special agent in charge, she says the link between missing children and trafficking was starting to become clear. But the system often treated the young people involved in terms of prostitution, as if they were making a choice.

By 2011, with 85 percent of Tennessee counties reporting child-trafficking cases, she and others had persuaded lawmakers to prohibit charging minors with prostitution.

Since then, the state has passed about 40 more laws to better address trafficking. Shared Hope International, a nonprofit that grades such efforts, recently gave Tennessee the highest score in its “Protected Innocence” report

Just as people have come to understand that domestic violence isn’t a private family matter, there’s a need for a similar long-term “shift in hearts and minds in the way that we view this criminal activity as a society,” says Ms. Quin, who retired from the TBI this year and is a criminal justice professor at Cumberland University.

One key improvement so far: recognizing that “trafficking is a demand-driven crime.”

When the TBI put up fake online ads to try to catch people predisposed to commit child sex crimes, they’d receive 200 to 400 calls a day in one city, she says. In 2016, a new Tennessee law allowed investigators to pose as minors for sting operations.

“I was shocked at the number of men who really are looking to buy kids,” she says. The men ran the gamut economically and racially, “and we prosecuted them all.”

When victims don’t see their cases prosecuted, “the message they get is, ‘I don’t count … and nobody cares what happened to me,’ ” Quin says.

Better-informed juries 

Even in the years leading up to the Epstein case, federal prosecutors in southern Florida were already “extremely aggressive and concerned about getting the maximum [prison] time possible” for such crimes, says Marcos Jiménez, referring to his tenure as US attorney there from 2002 to 2005, immediately preceding Mr. Acosta. The current US attorney there did not respond to requests for comment.

Mr. Jiménez says Acosta was well regarded and did a good job overall, but he characterizes the arrangement for Epstein as “appalling,” based on details laid out by the Herald.

It’s possible the government would keep secret something it gets in exchange for a plea, but anything short of “a matter of national security” would make it difficult to justify even considering such a deal, says Jiménez, now in private practice in Coral Gables, Fla.

The US Department of Labor did not respond to requests for comment, but when asked briefly about it during his hearing to become secretary of Labor, Acosta said, “it is not unusual to have an indictment that says these are all the places we can go, yet at the end of the day, based on the evidence, professionals within a prosecutor’s office decide that a plea that guarantees that someone goes to jail, that guarantees that someone register generally, and that guarantees other outcomes is a good thing.”

Epstein did have to register as a sex offender. His jail time included long periods of work release in his office during the day, the Herald notes.

Jiménez says he was particularly disturbed by the steps the Herald reported that prosecutors and Epstein’s defense lawyers took to keep information about the plea deal away from the victims. 

“It's particularly egregious in this case, where you had so many young women who were looking forward to having their day in court…. That should give us all pause,” says Meredith Dank, director of The Exploitation and Resiliency Project at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

Many cases don’t get as far as a plea deal. Young people who have been sexually abused or trafficked are often reluctant to talk, either out of shame or fear of being criminally charged. They are sometimes judged harshly for any involvement in risky behavior, such as the use of alcohol or drugs. 

“It’s kind of a powerlessness…. Some people may be sympathetic towards them, but many parts of the system don't really see them as worth worrying about,” says Linda Williams, director of Wellesley College’s Justice and Gender-Based Violence Research Initiative in Massachusetts. 

She led a study of 500 child sexual abuse cases referred for state-level prosecution over five years. Only 20 percent were prosecuted, and many of those ended up being dismissed, she says. (Most were not trafficking cases.)

Overall, the criminal justice system has improved in recent years as there’s been “more of a focus on making sure there is not a prejudice against female victims,” Jiménez says.

Better-informed juries have also emerged as survivors of sexual assault have stepped forward and partnered with the media to tell their stories, Mr. Dolce says: “People seem to understand better why delayed reporting occurs, what the impact is of sex crimes … and how sex criminals mislead people into believing that they're safe when they’re not.” 

For help or concerns about a crime please contact the National Human Trafficking Resource Center’s toll-free hotline at 1-888-373-7888, or the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-4673

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