Justice has seemed elusive these past three years. One of the most discouraging themes has been the pattern of powerful white men who seem to get away with sexual misconduct and even criminal behavior toward women and young girls: Donald Trump, Roy Moore, Brett Kavanaugh, among them. Some days, it feels like the idea of “justice” is nonexistent when it comes to this type of powerful perpetrator and conduct.
The case of billionaire Jeffrey Epstein, thus far, is one of the most egregious examples. Epstein actually got caught: He was arrested and charged last decade by federal authorities for running a sex-trafficking operation in which minor girls experienced horrible sexual abuse and rape in Florida. But then Epstein was given a slap-on-the-wrist deal in 2008 from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Florida and some of his co-conspirators were shielded from prosecution. To make matters even worse, that deal seems to have been the product of some serious gamesmanship by a cabal of other powerful white men, including Alex Acosta, then-U.S. attorney and now secretary of labor.
But, finally, it looks like justice will be served to Epstein in the form of new sex-trafficking charges filed by the formidable U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Southern District of New York.
Epstein has reportedly been arrested for trafficking dozens of minors in New York and Florida between 2002 and 2005. And this time, Epstein shouldn’t expect the ridiculous sweetheart deal he got the first time around.
Charges of federal sex-trafficking (prior to 2006) carry up to 40 years in prison. Short of a cooperation agreement with the government—which in the SDNY famously means full cooperation against all possible other subjects and targets—Epstein will likely serve a very substantial prison sentence possibly a decade or more.
In addition, in my experience as a prosecutor involved in trafficking cases in the SDNY, that office is not in the practice of giving slap-on-the-wrist deals to sex offenders and will prosecute the case fairly but with appropriate zeal. The fact that the FBI also reportedly executed a search warrant at Epstein’s New York residence suggests either that they had probable cause to believe there was more recent conduct that occurred there and/or that evidence from his past crimes was likely to be found there this many years later. That search could yield important new evidence.
There are already many important questions about this prosecution. First, how could Epstein be prosecuted this many years later? Because since 2006, under federal law, there is no statute of limitations for child sexual exploitation cases of this type. So as long as Epstein’s conduct was still chargeable under the prior statute of limitations in 2006, he can be prosecuted for those crimes today.
Second, what should we make of reporting that Epstein’s prosecution is being overseen by the Public Corruption Unit of the SDNY? Short answer: It’s too soon to say. It could mean that a public official is being investigated or will be charged with Epstein. That could be a minor public figure or a major one. It could mean that SDNY is investigating misconduct in the plea that Epstein was given in 2008. Or it could mean none of those things.
Third, could Epstein cooperate and implicate other powerful men who were involved in this sex trafficking, both Republicans and Democrats? Yes—but the SDNY will not cooperate with a child predator like Epstein easily (for good reason in my view). In my 16 years as a prosecutor, I am only aware of two instances in which someone convicted of a crime of this nature was offered a cooperation agreement. That means Epstein would have to have some very valuable and verifiable information to trade for a cooperation agreement.
Fourth, could Attorney General Bill Barr run interference on this case? Yes. He is the head of the whole Justice Department, even the “Sovereign” district, as SDNY is sometimes playfully called. And while it pains me to say this, given Barr’s conduct in the past acting more as a defense attorney for Trump than an overseer of justice, I am concerned that Barr might interfere if he thought that Epstein might implicate Trump, who was friends with Epstein. Barr did say in his confirmation hearings that he might recuse himself on overseeing matters with respect to Epstein because of his (Barr’s) affiliation with a law firm, Kirkland & Ellis, which was part of the Florida plea debacle. Now would be a good time to know if Barr followed through on that.
So, there are many open questions and twists and turns that this case will follow. But, for now, in a world in which justice has seemed so elusive, I think we should take a moment to applaud the fact that it appears justice is being served to Jeffrey Epstein and for the many young victims of his horrendous crimes.
Correction: The sex-trafficking statute was amended in 2006 to include a mandatory minus of 10 or 15 years depending on the age of the victim.