U.S. District Court Judge Kenneth A. Marra recently issued a ruling that federal prosecutors who negotiated a 2008 plea deal with billionaire Jeffery Epstein violated the federal Crime Victims’ Rights Act of 2004 (“CVRA”). Judge Marra ruled that the agreement violated the federal Crime Victims’ Rights Act because it failed to notify victims of the 2008 agreement or, in some cases, misled the victims “to believe that federal prosecution was still a possibility.” This ruling and the ensuing political controversy surrounding U.S. Secretary of Labor Alex Acosta—the prosecutor that negotiated the Epstein deal—has put the rights of crime victims in the mix about recent prison and sentencing reforms (here, here, here and here).
The origin of the crime victims’ rights movements (“CVRM”) lies in the social unrest and horrific crimes of the 1960s: the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, Civil Rights Leader Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and Senator Robert Kennedy; the Charles Manson Family Murders; the Kitty Genovese Murder; and the Zodiac Killer Case.
In a December 2004 article “The History of the Crime Victims Movement in the United States,” Dr. Marlene Young and John Stein, both of whom are affiliated with the National Organization for Victim Assistance, said California initiated the first state victim compensation program in 1965. Fourteen years later 28 states had established such programs.
Crime Victim Rights Organizations
In a July 22, 1994 article in CQ Researcher (Vol. 4, Issue 27), Charles S. Clark noted that the number of crime victims’ rights (“CVR”) organizations had “exploded” from “200 in 1980 to more than 8,000” in 1994. Clark pointed out that by 1994, all 50 states had enacted CVR protection statutes and CVR compensation programs that covered counseling, funeral and medical expenses.
The federal CVRA was enacted in 2004 and codified in 18 U.S.C. § 3771. Subsection A of this statute sets forth ten basic rights of crime victims. They are:
- The right to be reasonably protected from the accused.
- The right to reasonable, accurate, and timely notice of any public court proceeding, or any parole proceeding, involving the crime or of any release or escape of the accused.
- The right not to be excluded from any such public court proceeding, unless the court, after receiving clear and convincing evidence, determines that testimony by the victim would be materially altered if the victim heard other testimony at that proceeding.
- The right to be reasonably heard at any public proceeding in the district court involving release, plea, sentencing, or any parole proceeding.
- The reasonable right to confer with the attorney for the Government in the case.
- The right to full and timely restitution as provided in law.
- The right to proceedings free from unreasonable delay.
- The right to be treated with fairness and with respect for the victim’s dignity and privacy.
- The right to be informed in a timely manner of any plea bargain or deferred prosecution agreement.
- The right to be informed of the rights under this section and the services described in section 503(c) of the Victims’ Rights and Restitution Act of 1990 (42 U.S.C. 10607(c)) and provided contact information for the Office of the Victims’ Rights Ombudsman of the Department of Justice.
Relief for Violation Crime Victims’ Rights Act
The mechanism for relief for a violation of the CVRA is limited. A violation does not provide grounds for a new trial for the defendant. A crime victim, however, may file a motion to have a guilty plea or sentence reopened but only if…
- The victim has asserted the right to be heard before or during the proceeding at issue and such right was denied;
- The victim petitions the court of appeals for a writ of mandamus within ten days; and
- In the case of a plea, the accused has not pled go the highest offense charged.
Nor will a violation serve as cause for a civil lawsuit “for damages or to create, to enlarge, or to imply any duty or obligation to any victim or other person for the breach of which the United States or any of its officers or employees could be held liable in damages.”
Texas’ Crime Victims’ Rights Act
The Texas Legislature actually created its own version of the CVRA in 1985 when it added the Chapter 56 to the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure (“CCP”) enumerating the rights of crime victims. Article 56.02 of the CCP sets forth 14 specific “Crime Victims’ Rights” while Article 56.021 added 10 specific “Rights of Victims of Sexual Assault or Abuse, Stalking, or Trafficking.” Article 56.04 of the CCP requires the district attorney in a county of 150,000 or more to have a “victim assistance coordinator” to make sure these rights are protected.
The Texas Legislature in 1990, 1993, 1997, and 2005 passed crime victims’ legislation expanding both the rights and benefits of crime victims in this state. During this same time frame, the Texas Legislature passed legislation that either enhanced the rights of crime victims to have greater participation in the state’s criminal justice system or enhanced penalties against criminal defendants found guilty of specific offenses.
In a 2008 Pace Law Review article (Vol. 28, Issue 4), Washington College of Law professor David E. Aaronsom made this observation:
“The crime victims’ rights movement has revealed legitimate and serious shortcomings within our criminal justice system. Crime victims have complained of insensitive treatment by police, prosecutors, and other criminal justice officials; inadequate protective measures, absence of meaningful restitution, compensation or other assistance; and have been mostly excluded from participating in the criminal justice process, except in their role as witnesses. Police and prosecutors often neglect to include victims in the various phases of investigation and prosecution, make decisions affecting the crime victims without informing or consulting them, and impose a ‘secondary harm’ on crime victims that adds to the injury already suffered.”
The underage sexual abuse victims left out of the plea agreement process in the Jeffery Epstein case have every right to be angry at the federal government. Epstein’s wealth and privilege allowed him to negotiate a secret plea deal with then Assistant U.S. Attorney Alex Acosta and his prosecution team that not only benefitted Epstein but protected the billionaire’s clique of wealthy friends from law enforcement scrutiny about their knowledge of or involvement in the predatory sexual abuse of scores of underage girls.
But neither the CVRA, nor Texas’ crime victims’ rights laws, provide meaningful relief for violations of these laws intended to provide systemic aid to victims of crime. The laws are only as good as the people who manage and apply them.