In her days as a sex crimes prosecutor with the Palm Beach County State Attorney’s Office, Takisha Richardson once ordered police to arrest a teen-age rape victim to force her to testify.
“In cases like that, where there’s a community interest in getting someone off the street that could potentially do this to someone else, it’s something I had to do,” Richardson said. “She came in in handcuffs, she testified, the judge let her go right then, and her rapist was convicted and got 50 years in prison.”
The lengths Richardson went to get a conviction sharply contrast with the roundly criticized actions of prosecutors in the 2007 case against billionaire financier Jeffrey Epstein, who faced claims he assaulted dozens of girls, some as young as 14, at his Palm Beach home.
Richardson recalled the case of the jailed victim as she watched U.S. Labor Secretary Alex Acosta, who headed the prosecution of Epstein, defend his actions Wednesday in a nationally televised news conference.
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Richardson, who was chief of the Palm Beach County State Attorney’s Office special victims unit until she left to work for the Cohen Milstein firm last year, said that while she hasn’t faced the circumstances confronting Acosta’s prosecutors, she has taken cases with serious evidence problems to trial.
One case she remembered this week involved a defendant who had herpes and passed on the incurable illness to his victims. After a judge ruled that jurors could not hear the STD evidence, she approached defense attorneys with a three-year plea deal.
The defendant, sensing the weakness in her case, rejected the deal. So she went to trial, and despite her fears, a jury convicted him. He is now serving a life sentence.
“Every time you go to trial on cases like this, it’s a gamble,” Richardson said. “I’ve won some cases I thought for sure I was going to lose. I’ve gotten a defendant to confess while he was on the witness stand, and then the jury still came back and acquitted him. Not being sure of the outcome shouldn’t stop you.”
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Widlanski and Richardson agreed, however, that a lack of initial cooperation from victims should not be a deterrent. Both said they rarely handled sexual battery cases with victims who immediately agreed to testify.
In Epstein’s case, although court records show that prosecutors had identified dozens of alleged victims who were as young as 14 when they met Epstein, most had refused to testify or even speak with investigators.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Marie Villafana, the prosecutor who worked on the Epstein case, said one of two victims they were counting on had denied that Epstein assaulted her. In fact, she described Epstein to FBI agents as an “awesome man” and expressed sadness that he was under legal scrutiny because he “did nothing wrong.”
Richardson said what prosecutors know now — and should have known back then — is that underage victims especially often feel a need to protect their abusers and will often initially deny abuse took place.
That’s what happened in a Gainesville lawsuit that Richardson took to trial last year. She said the victim had even written letters to her abuser telling him what a great person he was and how much she loved him.
She presented evidence showing that such behavior was common for abuse victims, and a jury eventually awarded the victim $4.6 million.
With three dozen identified victims, Richardson says that had prosecutors taken the Epstein case to trial, she believes at least a few other victims eventually would have agreed to testify.
The key, Richardson and victims’ advocates Julie Weil said this week, would have been to encourage the victims to go to therapy and work through the lingering trauma connected to the abuse. Richardson said that she’s also had cases where one willing victim persuaded others to testify.
The testimony of multiple victims, Richardson said, is the strongest possible evidence to have in a sex crimes prosecution — even stronger than a confession.
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