On Saturday morning, it was reported that Jeffrey Epstein, the disgraced financier accused of sexually abusing young girls, was found dead by suicide in his cell on Saturday morning at the federal Metropolitan Correctional Center. He was 66 years old.
Epstein had been held on charges of sex trafficking and sex trafficking conspiracy. He was arrested on these charges at New Jersey’s Teterboro Airport last month, and was being held without bail at the New York City jail. Epstein’s death came just a day after the unsealing of hundreds of pages of court documents from a civil suit filed by one of Epstein’s accusers, which named many powerful figures in connection to his crimes.
Immediately following news of his death, speculation swirled around how Epstein could have had the means to make an attempt on his own life. (The FBI is reportedly investigating his death.) Although he had been placed under suicide watch after a previous attempt a few weeks prior, Reuters reports that he was not on suicide watch at the time of his death. Duncan Levin, former prosecutor for the Eastern District of New York and managing partner at Tucker Levin PLLC, says it’s not all that surprising that Epstein could have successfully completed an attempt at MCC. “There are all sorts of illegal things at the MCC, from drugs to cell phones to alcohol,” he says, adding that inmates themselves have been known to conduct checks for fellow inmates on suicide watch at the jail. (MCC did not return requests for comment at press time.)
But arguably the more important question than how Epstein could’ve taken his own life, is what will happen next following his demise, and whether his accusers will ever find justice. And the answer is yes — but only to a point.
The bad news is that because Epstein was the only person named in the criminal indictment, the criminal case against him is over. “Epstein’s suicide will naturally leave a lot of people feeling that justice was not adequately served, but from the perspective of the criminal justice system, there’s not much else to do,” says Levin. In a statement to Rolling Stone, Epstein accuser Jennifer Araoz echoed this, saying, “I am angry Jeffrey Epstein won’t have to face his survivors of his abuse in court. We have to live with the scars of his actions for the rest of our lives, while he will never face the consequences of the crimes he committed the pain and trauma he caused so many people.”
But that’s not to say that his accusers won’t have recourse in civil court, especially given the extent of his wealth. (Court documents estimate his net worth at about $559 million in assets — a hefty sum, though significantly short of the $1 billion he frequently bragged he was worth.) “Prosecutors will want to make sure that any forfeitable assets are not just kept by Epstein’s estate, and that they are forfeited to the government,” says Levin.
Epstein’s accusers can still pursue civil claims against his estate for damages, which one lawyer Rolling Stone spoke with said were likely to be “massive.” And given the publicitly surrounding the case, as well as the number of victims speaking out against Epstein, the odds would very much be in their favor in civil court, says Professor Maya Simek, director of the health and human trafficking law clinic at Case Western Reserve. “Whenever you have a lot of survivors telling the same story it only increases the likelihood there would be some kind of compensation,” she says.
However, the ability to file civil suit is limited by the statute of limitations in an accuser’s state. While in New York, the recently signed Child Victims’ Act (CVA) means that anyone who was a victim of sexual abuse while they were a minor can file a civil suit against their abuser until they are 55 years old, in Florida the statute of limitations for a child sexual abuse claim is seven years until after the victim turns 18. For those who allege to have been abused by Epstein more than a decade ago, such as the victims cited in the criminal case (which concerned allegations spanning from 2002 to 2005), “it may be that they are just out of luck with civil suits against the estate,” says Levin.
In the wake of Epstein’s death, the inability to file a claim in civil court based on the statute of limitations could be devastating for survivors who were hoping to see him brought to justice. “Being able to afford the right to have remedies in either is very important to allowing someone to feel they have been made whole. When we are not able to afford that remedy to survivors, it’s absolutely a disservice,” says Simek.
That said, just because the criminal case against Epstein is over doesn’t mean that prosecutors won’t file criminal charges against the other wealthy, powerful figures implicated in his crimes, though they might now be facing an uphill battle. “He was likely a key witness against the others. It may be hard to make a case without him,” John Ellis, a criminal defense attorney and former assistant federal defender, tells Rolling Stone. All eyes will now be on one individual linked to Epstein: Ghislaine Maxwell, his ex-girlfriend and alleged “madam,” who has been heavily implicated in the allegations against Epstein and is accused of having procured young girls for him to abuse. (Maxwell has yet to be charged with any crime, and has strongly denied all of the allegations against her.)
Given that the individual criminal case against Epstein is now over (and given the immense amount of public pressure that will almost certainly ensue as a result of his death), it’s likely that the investigation into any potential coconspirators will continue. “The prosecutors now have more time on their hands, and it’s highly unlikely they will just entirely drop the inquiry,” says Levin, though given the continued investigation, it’s hard to know when this would happen, or how this will affect the unsealing of further documents, he adds.
Ultimately, however, while the individual criminal case against Epstein ends with his death, the investigation into the allegations against him — and the people implicated in these allegations — is far from over. “Epstein is gone, but justice must still be served. I hope the authorities will pursue and prosecute his accomplices and enablers, and ensure redress for his victims,” Araoz says. And the fact that Epstein will never fully see justice in the criminal system, combined with the outrage and confusion many are now feeling over how this could have happened in the first place, will “ultimately translate to increased pressure on the government to investigate those who facilitated his crimes. I think that’s much more likely now,” says Levin.
Aug. 10, 2019, 1:10 p.m.: This story has been updated.