By Brendan Pierson
NEW YORK (Reuters) - A 2007 agreement by U.S. federal prosecutors not to charge Florida financier Jeffrey Epstein with sex trafficking of minors violated the legal rights of Epstein's alleged victims by keeping them in the dark, a federal judge ruled on Thursday.
U.S. District Judge Kenneth Marra in West Palm Beach, Florida, ruled the prosecutors violated the federal Crime Victims' Rights Act by not letting more than 30 identified victims know of the deal so they would have a chance to oppose it.
Under his deal, Epstein pleaded guilty to a lesser Florida state felony prostitution charge and served 13 months in prison.
The ruling came in a civil lawsuit filed by two of the alleged victims against the government in 2008 to challenge the non-prosecution agreement.
"The vindication the victims received today is the reason we have fought for their rights for more than 10 years," said Brad Edwards, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, in an email.
It was not immediately clear what effect the ruling would have. Marra did not order any remedy, instead ordering the plaintiffs and the government to notify him within 15 days how they wished to proceed in determining a remedy.
Marra noted in his opinion that in at least one past case, a court had rescinded a non-prosecution agreement after finding that it was reached in violation of the victims' legal rights.
Alex Acosta, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida in 2007 and now U.S. Secretary of Labor in the Trump administration, was among the prosecutors who made the agreement.
A Labor Department spokeswoman said the decisions of the U.S. Attorney's office under Acosta had been approved by U.S. Justice Department leadership and the Justice Department had defended them in court. She declined further comment.
A lawyer for Epstein could not immediately be reached for comment.
Before reaching the non-prosecution agreement with Acosta's office, Epstein was facing potential federal indictment for sexually abusing dozens of girls as young as 14 between 1999 and 2007, directing others to abuse them and paying employees to bring victims to him, according to court filings.
Epstein has said that his encounters with alleged victims were consensual and that he believed they were 18 when they occurred.
Marra said prosecutors not only failed to tell known victims about the deal, as required by law, but also chose to "mislead the victims to believe that federal prosecution was still a possibility" by urging them to be "patient" even after the deal was reached.
(Reporting by Brendan Pierson in New York; Editing by Howard Goller)