When prison officials found financier Jeffrey Epstein dead in his cell Saturday, the charges prosecutors levied against him died too, as did the opportunity for victims to have their day in court.
His death makes it as if his indictment never happened. He will be presumed innocent of the charges in perpetuity. But the evidence gathered in his case and the harm he allegedly inflicted will continue to have far-reaching legal consequences — for his victims, his allies and his estate.
Despite this, lawyers representing Epstein’s accusers said Saturday that their clients will continue to seek justice from the people they claim enabled Epstein’s alleged abuse.
“The criminal case against Epstein died when he did,” said New York University law professor Stephen Gillers. When a defendant dies before trial (or after trial but before appeals are completed) a prosecution concludes.
But in a statement released Saturday, Manhattan U.S. Attorney Geoffrey S. Berman confirmed Epstein’s death and recommitted his office to giving Epstein’s victims their day in court.
“To those brave young women who have already come forward and to the many others who have yet to do so, let me reiterate that we remain committed to standing for you, and our investigation of the conduct charged in the Indictment — which included a conspiracy count — remains ongoing,” Berman said, opening up the potential for anyone who aided or abetted Epstein’s crimes to be investigated and prosecuted.
Attorney General William P. Barr on Monday echoed Berman’s promise, too, warning that “any co-conspirators should not rest easy.”
“This case will continue on against anyone who was complicit with Epstein,” Barr said. “The victims deserve justice, and they will get it.”
According to court documents, including those released on Friday, Epstein’s alleged crimes were enabled by a vast conspiracy of facilitators and recruiters who coerced the girls into sexual trafficking. Even after Epstein’s death, some of those people can be brought to justice.
In recent weeks, for example, attention on Ghislaine Maxwell, Epstein’s longtime girlfriend who was allegedly one of the financier’s chief co-conspirators, has intensified, though authorities have had trouble locating her.
Although federal prosecutors have not yet named or charged anyone, legal experts have implied they are focused on certain individuals, citing the conspiracy charge brought against Epstein.
The 2007 plea deal Epstein made with prosecutors in Florida was written in such a way that precluded authorities from charging four women identified as possible co-conspirators. But the Southern District of New York, which indicted Epstein on sex-trafficking in July, has previously said it is not bound by Florida’s plea-deal terms, including the agreement not to prosecute possible co-conspirators.
While taking them to court might be an uphill battle, experts ultimately predict the government would be successful.
Attorney and former federal prosecutor Kenneth White pointed out that the people Epstein allegedly used to recruit girls don’t have standing to challenge the search of his house. Any evidence procured from Epstein’s New York brownstone would be admissible against other alleged co-conspirators.
“We want to keep an eye out to make sure the investigation is genuinely going on,” White said, by looking for further grand jury activity or subpoenas, indicating law enforcement is pursuing other involved parties.
Attorney General Barr on Monday publicly blamed the Bureau of Prisons and called Epstein’s death a “failure to adequately secure” him.
“There will be accountability,” Barr said Monday, vowing to “get to the bottom of what happened” at the New York federal detention center. “We are now learning of serious irregularities at this facility that are deeply concerning and demand a thorough investigation.”
Whether Epstein’s death was a suicide or a homicide remains an open question. Suicide is the most likely cause of death, Georgetown Law professor Paul Butler said, but there are circumstances that must be investigated.
Epstein was supposed to be checked on every 30 minutes but wasn’t. Epstein was supposed to share a cell, yet his cellmate was removed on Friday and had not been replaced.
Questions surrounding Epstein’s death have ignited a criminal FBI investigation and an internal investigation by the Justice Department inspector general.
“If it was suicide it was enabled by the [Metropolitan Correctional Center]. Jailers were on notice he wanted to take his own life and they essentially allowed him to do so,” Butler said.
But, he asked, “was this negligence or was this knowing and intentional?”
Because of his untimely death, Epstein’s accusers will be forced to sue his estate for restitution and may face myriad obstacles, Gillers told The Washington Post.
“If [Epstein] had been convicted of the charges, his accusers could have tried to use the conviction to establish his liability,” he said, but because of his death, the law views Epstein as though he had never been charged in the New York case.
But the standard for civil liability is much lower.
Butler pointed out, “Like the O.J. Simpson case — where he was found not guilty of murder but found to be liable to the named victims in the murder case — Epstein’s estate may still be liable for damages to the survivors."
Criminal trials allow victims to confront the person who harmed them and force that person to hear them. For some, it’s an empowering moment of catharsis — one that Epstein’s alleged victims will be denied.
“There’s that element of closure that he’s taken away from them,” said Kimberly Lerner, an attorney for one of Epstein’s accusers.
But there are still ways for alleged victims to seek justice in his absence.