A Florida appeals court has opened the door for the possible release of transcripts of the grand jury investigation into notorious sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein nearly 20 years ago that ended with prosecutors negotiating a plea deal that critics have called questionably lenient.
Florida’s Fourth District Court of Appeals unanimously agreed that Circuit Judge Donald W. Hafele had erred when he ruled he had no authority to release the normally secret transcripts of the 2006 Palm Beach County proceedings. The court cited a state law provision that says grand jury records can be made public if that is a “furtherance of justice.”
The court in Wednesday’s decision ordered Hafele to review the transcripts and to release those he deems would further justice, redacting the names of victims, witnesses and those who have not been criminally charged. There is a public interest in knowing whether the wealthy and politically connected Epstein, who lived in a Palm Beach mansion, was given special treatment, the court ruled.
“There is a tradition in the United States, a tradition that is older than our Nation itself, that proceedings before a grand jury shall generally remain secret,” the appellate judges wrote, quoting a 1997 decision. “The rule of secrecy, however, is not without exceptions.”
The Palm Beach Post had sued for the transcripts’ release, but Hafele did not believe that the “furtherance of justice” provision applied to any party not directly involved in the Epstein case. Even then, he believed those parties needed to have an open criminal or civil case and would be limited in what they, in turn, could make public.
Palm Beach County Court Clerk Joseph Abruzzo was technically the defendant in the Post’s lawsuit as his office holds the records, but he applauded the ruling and said he will not appeal.
“I will leave no stone unturned to have these records released for full transparency to the public,” he said in a statement.
Epstein was 66 when he killed himself in a New York City federal jail cell in August 2019 as he awaited trial on sex trafficking charges. Federal prosecutors had accused him of paying underage girls hundreds of dollars for massages at his homes in Florida and New York, where he then molested them.
Florida’s treatment of Epstein came under scrutiny in 2018 following a series of Miami Herald articles. They detailed the disagreements that surfaced beginning in 2005 among law enforcement officials after teenage girls and young women told Palm Beach police investigators that Epstein had sexually assaulted them. They had agreed to give him massages while semi- or fully nude in exchange for money, but they said he would then molest them without their consent.
Palm Beach police, meanwhile, took their evidence to federal prosecutors, who threatened to bring charges until an agreement was reached in June 2008. Epstein pleaded guilty to state charges of procuring a person under 18 for prostitution and felony solicitation of prostitution. He was sentenced to 18 months in the Palm Beach County jail system followed by 12 months of house arrest. He was required to register as a sex offender.
While in Palm Beach sheriff’s custody, Epstein was allowed to stay in an isolated cell at the county’s minimum-security stockade, where he roamed freely and watched television. State investigators said in a 2021 report that isolating him was a prudent decision, saying it was made to protect Epstein from other inmates and to prevent him from using his wealth to become “king of the dorms.”
Epstein was also soon allowed into the county’s work-release program. During that time, he was taken to his office, where he claimed to be running his financial consulting business and his foundation. By the time of his release, he was spending six days a week and 18 hours a day at his office. He was required to wear an ankle monitor and hire two deputies to oversee his whereabouts from the lobby, but they were not in his office with him.
A woman who was then 17 and another woman, who was then an adult, have said they were trafficked to Epstein’s office during that time to have paid sex with him.
Epstein’s former girlfriend, socialite Ghislaine Maxwell, is serving a 20-year prison sentence after being convicted in 2021 of luring girls to his homes to be molested.