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With Jeffrey Epstein's death by apparent suicide on Saturday, his accusers lost any chance to watch him stand trial on sex trafficking and conspiracy charges brought by federal prosecutors in Manhattan last month.
But they may still have other ways to pursue justice.
The wealthy financier was found unresponsive in his jail cell while awaiting trial at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan. Epstein had been put on special observation status, under which he would be housed with a cellmate and receive check-ins from prison staff every 30 minutes. In the hours leading up to Epstein's death, that was not happening, a person familiar with the investigation told NPR's Ryan Lucas.
Epstein's death "effectively ends" the criminal case against him, says Kerry Lawrence, who spent a decade as a federal prosecutor in the same office that brought charges against Epstein in July.
That leaves Epstein's accusers with the option of pursuing civil cases against his estate, Laurie Levenson, a former federal prosecutor and Loyola Law School professor, told NPR's Weekend Edition on Sunday.
"The recourse is through the civil cases, the lawsuits against his estate," said Levenson.
That's a direction that at least some of Epstein's accusers appear to be heading toward. On Saturday, Lisa Bloom, an attorney for several of Epstein's accusers, posted to Twitter calling for the administrators of Epstein's estate to "freeze all his assets and hold them for his victims who are filing civil cases."
"Our civil cases can still proceed against his estate ... We're just getting started," she wrote.
The exact size of Epstein's estate remains a mystery, but according to Bloomberg, the estate included a $77 million mansion on New York's Upper East Side, an island in the U.S. Virgin Islands, a ranch in New Mexico and homes in Paris and Palm Beach, Fla. He had a net worth of at least $500 million, according to Bloomberg.
Lawrence says he thinks it will be difficult to proceed with a civil action since Epstein can't be put on trial. "He wasn't deposed, and now he's not available to defend himself," he says. "Any restitution that they might have sought for victims or forfeiture of assets in connection with the prosecution all effectively disappear."
The strength of any potential civil cases could hinge on what federal prosecutors uncover in what they say will be an ongoing investigation.
In a statement released Saturday, Geoffrey S. Berman, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, said the investigation into Epstein's sex trafficking case will continue. Berman said his office's investigation into the "conduct charged in the Indictment — which included a conspiracy count — remains ongoing." The mention of the conspiracy count suggested prosecutors may be turning their focus to Epstein's past associates.
It remains unclear who, if anyone, might become the focus of any widening investigation. Just one day before Epstein was found dead, court filings in a lawsuit against one of his longtime confidantes, Ghislaine Maxwell, were unsealed. According to the Miami Herald, in a deposition Maxwell denied allegations that she helped Epstein acquire girls or young women.
"The prosecutors have said that they're continuing to investigate. Now, they didn't bring charges against any of the co-conspirators when they did charge Epstein, so I'm not sure how likely it will be," said Levenson. "But there's a lot of pressure on them now, given that Epstein's gone, to find out who else was involved and whether they can be criminally charged."
While federal prosecutors press ahead with their investigation, Paul Cassell, a law professor at the University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law, says he intends to double down on the work he has been doing for the past 11 years — trying to make it possible for federal prosecutors in Florida to go after certain alleged co-conspirators in what he calls the financier's "large criminal apparatus."
In 2008, Epstein was convicted in state court but shielded from federal prosecution under a plea deal that granted him — as well as four unnamed co-conspirators and "any potential co-conspirators" — immunity from all criminal charges, the Miami Herald reported.
Epstein pleaded guilty to two counts of solicitation of prostitution, including one with a minor, and was sentenced to 18 months in jail, but was allowed to leave for work five days a week and was released five months early. Former U.S. Labor Secretary Alex Acosta resigned from his post last month after facing scrutiny for his role in brokering the deal during his time as a U.S. attorney.
Cassell, who represents four of Epstein's accusers, is pushing to get the nonprosecution agreement thrown out — a move that could expose possible co-conspirators to federal prosecution in Florida. He says it could also open doors for federal prosecutors in New York.
In February, a judge ruled that the agreement had violated the victims' rights. Now, says Cassell, the judge must decide what the remedy for that violation should be. If the judge decides to toss out the agreement, prosecutors in Florida could have a new path toward pursuing charges against Epstein's associates.
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