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Appeals court ruling could pave way for release of Jeffrey Epstein grand jury records

Jeffrey Epstein. (New York State Sex Offender Registry/TNS)

Jeffrey Epstein’s victims might finally learn why the former Palm Beach state attorney pursued only minor charges against the now-deceased financier who, according to a police report, sexually abused scores of girls 17 years ago.

The Fourth District Court of Appeal ruled that a Palm Beach judge was mistaken in ruling that he didn’t have the authority to determine whether grand jury records should be released from the 2006 inquiry into Epstein’s sex crimes. The court sent the case back to Circuit Judge Donald W. Hafele, with the instruction that he determine which of the grand jury records could be released.

A different effort — long-shot legislation submitted by two Palm Beach lawmakers tailored in a way to allow release of Epstein grand jury records but not other grand jury files — went nowhere in the just-finished session, despite Republican lawmakers, who hold sway in both chambers, making the fight against sexual “groomers” a focus of rhetoric.

In the grand jury investigation, then-State Attorney Barry Krischer only asked one of Epstein’s accusers — many of whom were high school students from nearby Royal Palm Beach High School — to testify, leading to a single charge of solicitation.

Victims, and the police officers who first began investigating Epstein’s crimes, have long said that Krischer’s team was overwhelmed by Epstein’s high-powered law team, which included famed attorney Alan Dershowitz and former U.S. Solicitor General Kenneth Starr.

Palm Beach attorney Spencer Kuvin represented several of Epstein’s victims and said that the release of these records is still very important to victims, nearly two decades later.

“A full accounting of what happened and how it occurred is significant to the victims because they don’t want it to happen to anyone ever again,” he said. “There was a huge amount of secrecy.”

The Palm Beach Post sued to have the records released.

The Palm Beach Police Department investigated Epstein’s actions, documenting dozens of cases in which girls and young women were recruited to give the multimillionaire massages that turned into sex acts.

After the Palm Beach grand jury was convened in 2006, Epstein’s case was taken up by the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Florida, but Epstein’s team was able to negotiate a plea deal with federal prosecutors that allowed Epstein to plead guilty in 2008 and serve his sentence in the Palm Beach County stockade, where Epstein was housed in a private section and given the ability to leave for multiple hours each day.

Epstein’s crimes and his lawyers’ manipulation of the legal system were the subject of the Miami Herald’s 2018 Perversion of Justice series. The reporting led federal prosecutors in New York’s Southern District to take a fresh look at Epstein and bring new charges against him in July 2019. Epstein died in federal custody one month later in what has been ruled a suicide. His former girlfriend, Ghislaine Maxwell, was arrested in 2020 and brought to trial the following year on charges related to sex trafficking. She was ultimately found guilty on numerous charges, including the sex trafficking of a minor, and sentenced last year to 20 years in prison.

Public assess advocates cheered Wednesday’s ruling.

“It is a very significant advancement for access to records in Florida and in this case in particular,” said Michael Barfield, director of public access initiatives at the Florida Center for Government Accountability.

Grand jury records are normally kept secret.

“It’s nearly impossible to get them,” said Scott Ponce an expert in media law and partner in the Miami office of Holland & Knight. “This is one of those rare cases where it can happen.”

Holland & Knight has represented the Miami Herald in numerous matters, including seeking Epstein records in federal court.

Florida law allows for courts to release grand jury records only under certain circumstances, including the goal of “furthering justice.”

It will now be up to Hafele, the trial judge, to determine which records to release, if any. The case could be appealed to the Supreme Court of Florida, though Joseph Abruzzo, the Palm Beach clerk of the court, and Dave Aronberg, the current Palm Beach state attorney, who are the subjects of the Palm Beach Post lawsuit, have said they don’t oppose release of the records.

Abruzzo said there was “no way” he could do so under current law.

The legislation in Tallahassee was sponsored by Rep. Tina Polsky, a Boca Raton Democrat and Rep. Peggy Gossett-Seidman, a Republican from Highland Beach, both in Palm Beach County, where the Epstein case was adjudicated and where many of his victims lived.

Gossett-Seidman said the bill seemed to gain support when she advocated for it in front of the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee.

“Palm Beach County had a chance to stop the monster in its tracks and it did not happen,” she told the committee.

Polsky said she introduced the legislation at Abruzzo’s urging. Both she and Gossett-Seidman said they intend to renew the legislative effort again during the next session.

Sen. Lauren Book, the chamber’s Democratic leader and a victim of sex abuse at the hands of her nanny when she was growing up, was disappointed that the bill went nowhere.

“With all the talk of ‘grooming’ this session — a term that has been shamefully co-opted and used to fear-monger and discriminate against the LGBTQ community — you’d think a measure such as [this] would have gained bipartisan support,” she said.


© 2023 McClatchy Washington Bureau

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