For 10 years, Courtney Wild waged almost a one-woman crusade against the federal government on behalf of victims of sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein, who molested her and countless other underage girls around the country.
Some of that time, Wild pursued justice from a putrid Florida state prison cell, where she was serving a longer sentence for a drug crime than Epstein, who received a plea deal that allowed him to enjoy his 13-month jail term mostly from the comforts of his luxurious office in West Palm Beach.
But a decade later, Wild’s relentless quest has led to a bipartisan push in Congress for sweeping reforms that, among other things, gives judges the power to nullify plea deals that violate the Crime Victims’ Rights Act (CVRA).
The Courtney Wild Crime Victims’ Rights Reform Act of 2019 was introduced in the House of Representatives Thursday by U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif.; Rep. Scott Perry, R‑Penn.; Rep. Lois Frankel, D‑Fla.; and Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala., and is co-sponsored by nine other representatives from both parties.
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The legislation, if passed, will strengthen the crime victims act by closing loopholes that federal prosecutors tried to exploit to justify giving Epstein one of the most lenient plea deals for a serial child sex offender in history.
The bill imposes discipline and other penalties upon prosecutors who fail to protect crime victims, and will also allow victims to obtain up to $15,000 in monetary redress for violations of their CVRA rights.
“I’m just crying. I don’t know what to say,’’ Wild, 31, told the Miami Herald. “ I just know this is my passion. When you want something so badly, you will just fight for it with all your heart. For so long, I wasn’t sure anything would happen. I’m just overwhelmed with joy and happiness. I fought for what’s right for all crime victims.’’
Wild’s attorney, Brad Edwards, said she continued to fight the battle, even during her darkest times when she was in jail and overcoming drug addiction.
“No matter where she was in her life, she was heavily involved in the case. It was the thing to me that in some ways, was the most stabilizing for her, even when her life was kind of falling apart,” Edwards said.
Speier, who is also a child sexual assault survivor, said she was moved by Wild’s story: how, when she was homeless, she and other girls were lured to Epstein’s Palm Beach mansion on the pretext that they would be paid to give him massages. The girls, mostly 13 to 16 years old, were abused by Epstein for years.
Epstein died in August after hanging himself in a New York jail cell while awaiting trial on new federal sex trafficking charges brought against him earlier this year.
“It was obvious these victims — who had played by the rules, done everything they were asked to do, provided all the testimony, and were treated like pawns in a battle between the prosecution and defense, and discarded,’’ Speier said just before introducing the bill Thursday at the U.S. Capitol.
“I felt compelled to change the law and give it some teeth so victims’ rights were no longer just words on a piece of paper; that they have some clout.”
In the aftermath of Epstein’s June 2008 plea hearing, Edwards filed what would become a historic case for crime victims. He and former federal judge Paul Cassell alleged that federal prosecutors, led by then-U.S. Attorney Alex Acosta, had violated the Crime Victims’ Rights Act by forging this secret non-prosecution agreement — designed so that no one, including Epstein’s victims, would know about the paltry punishment Epstein was given.
For 10 years, Edwards and Cassell filed legal briefs, depositions and even copies of emails passed between federal prosecutors and Epstein’s attorneys, showing that there was an effort to keep Epstein’s victims from learning that the government was negotiating an immunity deal for Epstein.
The federal government, meanwhile, filed counter arguments to keep the deal secret and prevent Epstein’s victims from nullifying the non-prosecution agreement, which not only granted immunity to Epstein, but also to his co-conspirators.
To Edwards, it was almost as though the government was working on behalf of Epstein, not his victims.
“The crux of the improvement in the law is that it eliminates the possibility that the government can work in concert with the defendant against the victim,’’ Edwards said. “In this case, the government was only communicating with the defendant and his lawyers and not with the victims. It’s unfortunate we had to fight for a decade to get some changes, but if it improves things for victims in the future then it was worth it.“
In February, U.S. District Judge Kenneth A. Marra, in a groundbreaking decision, ruled that prosecutors had violated the CVRA, but he stopped short of voiding the agreement. By then, Epstein had already served his sentence and had returned to his jet-setting life and was dividing his time between his mansion in Manhattan and his private island off the coast of St. Thomas.
But in July, the case took another turn when Epstein was arrested on sex trafficking charges brought by Geoffrey Berman, the U.S. Attorney in the Southern District of New York. The 66-year-old money manager was denied bail and ultimately died after hanging himself in his cell. His death was ruled a suicide.
Last month, Marra rendered the effort to nullify the agreement moot in the wake of Epstein’s death. Edwards and Cassell have appealed the decision.
“The district court’s ruling turns CVRA into a hollow promise for victims and should be overturned,” Cassell wrote in the appeal filed earlier this month.
Cassell, who helped write the new reform bill, said the measure includes important changes in how the CVRA operates, requiring, for example, that the Justice Department provide additional information to crime victims when questions arise about how criminal cases are proceeding.
“If this new law had been in place, it is clear that Epstein’s victims would have had justice by now,’’ Cassell said. “The CVRA Reform Act will ensure that the delay and trauma that Epstein’s victims suffered during the protracted litigation never happens again.”
THE COURTNEY WILD CRIME VICTIMS’ RIGHTS REFORM ACT WILL:
- Clarify that victims of federal crimes have the right to confer with federal prosecutors and be informed about key developments in a case, such as plea bargains, non-prosecution agreements, and referrals to state and local law enforcement.
- Increase the ability for victims to assert and protect their rights in court proceedings by expanding victims’ right to appeal, allowing victims to challenge proceedings when they weren’t given proper notice, allowing victims independently to bring civil actions to recover restitution from offenders, and providing attorneys’ fees for successful litigation against the Government, as is standard for civil-rights litigation.
- Require that victims be heard in court when their rights are violated and provide courts discretion to award other just and appropriate relief, including rescinding non-prosecution or deferred prosecution agreements.
- Build a stronger victim-focused administrative process within DOJ led by a new and authoritative National Coordinator for Victims’ Rights, including enforceable disciplinary sanctions and compensatory awards for egregious violations of victims’ CVRA rights.
- Facilitate more private advocacy for victims by reauthorizing victim legal assistance grants that have lapsed and authorizing a grant for a national resource center on crime victims’ rights.