The victims of sexual assault often have to navigate both the prosecution of criminal sexual assault charges and civil lawsuits. Each legal proceeding has its own process, its own rules, and its own possible outcomes. Knowing how the two interact can be important to weathering the storm and moving toward healing.
In this blog post, I will discuss how criminal sexual assault charges and civil lawsuits by the victims interact. Using a lawsuit filed by “Victim-1” against Jeffrey Epstein’s estate as an example, I will discuss the differences in timing and levels of certainty, as well as the possible benefits and compensation for victims coming from each case. I will also explain why victims need their own attorney, even at the criminal stage.
National and local news outlets have been flush with articles about the late billionaire Jeffrey Epstein. A decade after Epstein pleaded guilty to Florida-state prostitution charges, New York prosecutors and their federal counterparts in the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) unsealed an indictment of their own. The indictment claimed that Epstein was the operator of a sex trafficking ring involving 66 girls as young as age 14. Epstein was said to have appeared naked or in a robe before the girls and ask them to provide him with massages and sexual services. He then paid some of his victims to recruit others into the ring.
Epstein was put in jail while the criminal sexual assault case was pending. Then, on Saturday, August 10, 2019, he hanged himself in prison, effectively ending the criminal prosecution.
But that didn’t stop Epstein’s victims from seeking justice and compensation for the harm he had caused. The woman identified as “Minor Victim-1” in the New York indictment announced that she was filing a civil lawsuit against Epstein’s estate as one of hundreds of lawsuits already filed under the New York Child Victims Act’s one-year look-back window. The plaintiff in the case identifies herself as Jane Doe for safety reasons. Her complaint lays out a story of worsening sexual assault against a teenager in dire financial straits and looking for ways to support her mother and sick sister.
According to the indictment, “Minor Victim-1” was recruited by Epstein in 2002 at the age of 14, while she was living with a friend. Her mother and sister were sharing one bedroom of a two-bedroom apartment at the time, and renting the second to boarders to help pay for her sister’s medical condition. An older teenager in the neighborhood told Doe “about an opportunity to earn money” by introducing her to “a wealthy man” who turned out to be Epstein. When she arrived at his home (which she described as a castle), he asked her age before disrobing and laying face down on a massage table. When Doe did as he asked and massaged him, the scene quickly turned sexual. Epstein then paid Doe $300. This situation was often repeated until Doe turned 17, with the visits becoming more frequent and the sexual abuse more severe over time. Doe’s complaint also said that Epstein’s assistants, Sarah Kellen and Lesley Groff, assisted in scheduling the meetings, recruiting new girls, and paying Doe for her services.
When the victims of child sexual assault or their parents report sexual misconduct to the police, formal criminal sexual assault charges often follow. But even though the act happened to the victim, she or he often has little control over what happens in criminal court. State prosecutors will complete their investigation, file criminal sexual assault charges against the defendant, and negotiate plea deals, often without consulting with the victim or his or her family. The sexual assault charges are “crimes against the state”; the victim is simply a witness.
Convictions in criminal sexual assault cases are also often outside the victims’ control. Because these are criminal charges, they must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt and must follow all the rules about police conduct and admission of evidence. Sometimes that means a slip up in the way the police handled the investigation, or a strange answer at trial can stand between victims and the justice they deserve.
When criminal sexual assault charges do result in convictions, the sentencing is an important moment for the victim in the case. She or he is entitled to submit a statement about how the crime affected her or his life, and can often be awarded restitution for the financial costs connected to the crime. Standing up and telling a judge about sexual assault can be hard. If you have been wrestling with the effects of rape or sexual assault, a sentencing hearing can be traumatic. You need an advocate to stand with you, help you make your statement, and get all restitution available in your case.
Jane Doe will never have the chance to stand up in a criminal court and tell her story. Epstein took that from her along with her own life. But that doesn’t mean she can’t be compensated for the harm he caused. When a criminal prosecution falls apart, or when a victim’s damages extend beyond the financial reach of restitution, he or she may choose to file a civil lawsuit for personal injury based on the abuser’s intentional acts.
Unlike in criminal cases, civil lawsuits put the victim in control of his or her own case. You and your attorney work together to build the case and collect evidence. You have a say in when and how the complaint is filed, and are involved in every step of the process. Most importantly, you have the final say on any potential settlement.
Civil lawsuits also have a broader reach than their criminal counterparts. They can be successful even when there isn’t enough evidence to reach “beyond a reasonable doubt”. Under the Crime Victims Act they can also be filed later, giving victims more time to come to terms with their abuse. The damages in a civil lawsuit can also include more than just financial costs, like disability, mental harm, and pain and suffering.
Finally, a civil lawsuit lets the victim and her or his attorney tell the story of the case. Plaintiffs are permitted to testify at length about what happened and what it did to them. They can present witnesses to support their case and tell about what happened afterward. This gives plaintiffs like Jane Doe the opportunity to speak out against their abusers in a way criminal cases often don’t.
When criminal charges and civil lawsuits happen because of the same behavior, it is important to consider how the two proceedings will affect one another. This is a complicated question that is best discussed with an experienced sexual assault attorney. However, some common interactions include:
An experienced sexual assault attorney can guide you through both the criminal case and your own civil lawsuit against your abuser. At Eisenberg & Baum, LLP, team of sexual abuse attorneys know how to navigate both systems and will work for you to fight back against child sexual abuse. We can meet with you and your family at our headquarters in the heart of New York City, or conference with you remotely, to help you find protection and compensation through criminal sexual assault charges and civil lawsuits. Contact Eisenberg & Baum, LLP, today to talk to a sexual abuse attorney.