A politically connected multimillionaire could end up spending the rest of his life in prison if he’s convicted on new federal charges leveled Monday accusing him of sexually abusing dozens of underage girls in Manhattan and Florida.
But a University of Utah law professor has been arguing for nearly a dozen years that if the justice system had worked the way it should, financier Jeffrey Epstein would have faced similar charges long ago.
Paul Cassell, a former federal judge who has cultivated a reputation as a victim rights champion, interjected in the long saga involving Epstein in 2008, when the man was allowed to quietly resolve similar allegations in Florida in an agreement that was initially kept secret from the women leveling the allegations. Epstein spent only one year in jail for a prostitution charge.
The Utah professor has been working with Florida-based attorney Bradley Edwards to challenge that lenient deal. They argue in a lawsuit that the resolution violated the Crime Victims’ Rights Act because their clients were not allowed to confer with prosecutors and be heard at public proceedings regarding any pleas and sentencing.
On Monday, Epstein was indicted on federal sex trafficking charges, but not in the Florida courtroom as Cassell had been working toward.
Instead, federal prosecutors in New York took the step of filing criminal charges, alleging Epstein abused dozens of underage girls at his Manhattan and Palm Beach, Fla., homes and paid his victims to bring in other young girls whom he assaulted.
Epstein was arrested over the weekend, and pleaded not guilty to two charges in federal court Monday.
It’s not clear from the indictment whether those allegations involve Cassell’s clients — who are identified in court papers as Jane Doe #1 and #2 — though there are overlapping dates. Cassell did say Monday that the women he represents are pleased with the latest developments.
“My clients are happy to learn about the arrest,” he said. “And look forward to seeing the process take its course.”
Cassell and Edwards filed their suit in 2008, alleging that their clients were victims of sex-trafficking crimes committed by Epstein and were cut out of conversations about a plea deal that has been widely criticized as being too lenient.
Instead, they allege, the government secretly negotiated an agreement that precluded any federal prosecution — though federal prosecutors in New York said Monday that the deal only applied to the Southern District of Florida. The agreement allowed Epstein to plead guilty in state court in Florida to two counts of solicitation of a prostitution involving a minor. He served 13 months behind bars, but was allowed to leave daily for work.
Earlier this year, the judge overseeing the lawsuit involving Cassell ruled that prosecutors violated the law in offering Epstein a plea agreement without informing his victims. Now, attorneys are sparring in court papers over what should be be done next.
Cassell has argued the deal should be rescinded, and that his clients should be allowed to ask for federal prosecutors in Florida to try the case. Government attorneys say that’s not possible — and said undoing the deal could harm some of the victims. They are instead suggesting that a Department of Justice representative meet with the victims to explain the decision that was made then to offer a plea deal, hold a public hearing where victims can make impact statements and conduct additional trainings for federal prosecutors in central Florida.
Epstein, a 66-year-old hedge fund manager whose friends have included President Donald Trump and former President Bill Clinton, is accused in the new indictment of recruiting girls to give him a massage that over time became increasingly sexual. He then paid the victims hundreds of dollars, according to the indictment, and offered more money if the girls recruited other underage victims. The indictment alleges his victims were as young as 14, and federal prosecutors allege Epstein knew the girls were under 18 because some had “expressly told him their age.”
Federal prosecutors say Epstein committed the crimes between 2002 and 2005. He is accused of instructing the girls to perform nude or partially nude massages, which often escalated to other sex acts which included groping the girls.
Geoffrey Berman, the U.S. attorney in Manhattan, said in a news conference Monday that the girls Epstein allegedly abused were “particularly vulnerable” to exploitation.
"The alleged behavior shocks the conscience," he said. "And while the charged conduct is from a number of years ago, it is still profoundly important to many alleged victims, now young women. They deserve their day in court, and we are proud to be standing up for them by bringing this indictment."
Cassell noted Monday that before Berman’s news conference, a giant poster was displayed which included a request for anyone else who may have been victimized to come forward and call 1-800-CALL-FBI with any other information.
“We’re hopeful,” he said, “that the fact that this is receiving attention that other victims will provide [the FBI] even more information to hold Epstein and his co-conspirators accountable.”