Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past several months, you now know about the extremely controversial plea deal that Jeffrey Epstein was afforded. He received 13 months in county jail, had to register as a sex offender, and was ordered to pay restitution to his numerous victims. Many are outraged at the result, finding it way too lenient. Whether you think that was a fair outcome likely hinges on whether you believe what former Labor Secretary/Former U.S. Attorney Alexander Acosta said during his recent press conference, held just days before he resigned from Trump’s cabinet. If you believe him, then you subscribe to the notion that it was the best deal prosecutors could get under challenging circumstances and that both he, the career prosecutors who also worked on the case, and law enforcement agents, all acted in good faith in order to obtain for the victims the best possible resolution they could negotiate. If you believe Acosta, then you factor into the equation the things that he mentioned, like how the Government’s case wasn’t a slam dunk and that the climate for these types of cases was very different both in and out of court in 2008 than it is now. If you don’t believe Acosta, then you think something very different. Many have even gone as far as to suggest that Acosta intentionally tanked his case for personal benefit.
Whether Acosta was being honest and/or whether prosecutors did the right thing back then is not the focus of this article. There’s already plenty of those articles out there. You’re free to feel how you’d like. I have no agenda. What I want to focus on is what will most likely happen as a result of this uproar. One thing is for sure, there will be significant changes in the criminal arena as a result of the Epstein case controversy.
1) Prosecutors will be even tougher on child sex cases.
Most prosecutors I’ve met in my 26+ years in the criminal arena are motivated by two primary things, doing what’s right and fear. When I’m referring to fear in this context, I’m talking about how prosecutors don’t want to be crucified or even criticized in the media for being too soft on a defendant. They’ve all seen what Acosta went through. With good reason, none of them want to ever go through that. So, for that reason alone, many will increasingly error on the side of offering even stiffer plea bargain offers. For those who are applauding this, consider outcome #2.
2) More molestors will be acquitted.
For every action there’s a reaction. The tougher the plea bargains, the more defendants will risk going to trial. The more trials you have, the more likely there will be an increase in acquittals. Think about it. When prosecutors with challenging cases (also known as “a weak cases”) make offers deemed draconian, then defendants perceive the “plea offers” as “ultimatums” and/or “declaration of wars.” They don’t see the “bargain.” If the time that’s being offered is too high, many accused will choose to roll the dice and go to trial. As we’ve seen from many high profile trials, like OJ and/or Casey Anthony, there are no slam dunks. In fact, most sex abuse cases are challenging for prosecutors. Many don’t have any corroborating witnesses or scientific evidence. The system relies on plea bargains in order to guarantee that the accused accepts responsibility for his/her actions.
3) More victims will be denied justice
With more acquittals, more victims will be denied the justice that they deserve. Nothing is worse than when a victim commits to the extraordinary challenging process of pursuing a criminal trial and pours her heart out in front of jury only to have them come back “not guilty.” Not guilty doesn’t definitively mean the person didn’t do it. In most cases, it simply means “not proven.” Those two words can represent a finding by the jury that the person “possibly” did it, or “probably” did it, or even “really, really, really 100% most probably did it,” however, that’s not enough. Absent “proof beyond a reasonable doubt,” jurors must acquit. It’s no secret that our criminal system operates with the notion that it’s better to let nine guilty people walk for crimes that they’ve committed in order to ensure that one innocent person isn’t falsely convicted. Therefore, with more trials, you’ll see more acquittals. Not all acquittals are for people who didn’t do it. That’s coming from an experienced criminal defense attorney/trial lawyer.
4) More innocent defendants will suffer
I’ve had cases where the evidence is weak because my client is innocent. There have been times that fair and reasonable prosecutors will drop charges under those circumstances. Because the climate created by the Epstein uproar, the chances are now less that prosecutors will drop cases when they suspect that the accused may be innocent. I fear that there will be an increase in the existing mentality of many who believe that we should just let the jury decide. The problem with that is that jurors do get it wrong occasionally. We know that based upon how many innocent people have been exonerated after spending considerable prison terms for heinous crimes they didn’t commit.
Obviously, one scenario not mentioned above is that more defendants who roll the dice after rejecting plea bargains and go to trial will be convicted. Those defendants will likely get slammed after trial by sentencing judges. That’s rather obvious. What I thought was less obvious to the public was that as a result of the Epstein case, get ready for stiffer plea bargains, resulting in more criminal trials, yielding more acquittals, resulting in more heartbreak for true victims.