Jeffrey Epstein is dead. The accused sex trafficker was found unconscious in his cell at the Metropolitan Correctional Center (MCC) in lower Manhattan on Saturday, where he was being held while he awaited trail on federal sex trafficking charges. Officials declared his death a suicide. After an incident in late July in which Epstein was found on the floor of his cell with marks around his neck, the former financier had been on suicide watch, but according to NBC News, he was not being monitored at the time of his death.
Epstein’s death comes a day after records were unsealed from a civil suit brought by one of his alleged victims against Ghislaine Maxwell, the British publishing heiress and socialite who was Epstein’s longtime lover, employee and alleged co-conspirator in his abuse ring. Those records alleged that Epstein was at the center of an international web of sex trafficking, which according to the victim’s claims supplied young women and girls to powerful men including former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson, former Maine senator George Mitchell, the hotel scion Thomas Pritzker, the hedge fund manager Glenn Dubin, the scientist Marvin Minsky, the lawyer Alan Dershowitz and Britain’s Prince Andrew. The accused men deny the allegations. The allegations swirling around Epstein have already led to the resignation of labor secretary Alex Acosta, who as US attorney had brokered an uncommonly lenient plea deal for Epstein when the millionaire was first charged with prostituting children in 2008.
Since his arrest in early July and the publication of blockbuster reporting on his alleged crimes by the Miami Herald last year, Epstein’s case has had the air of a shadowy conspiracy, confirming the suspicions long held by many about the misogyny and moral vacuity of the very rich, and demonstrating how wealthy white men can manipulate a corrupt and racist criminal system in order to evade justice for even the most rank crimes. Epstein had a bipartisan social life, befriending conservatives such as Donald Trump and Dershowitz and liberals like Bill Clinton and Richardson, and so the story of his criminality took on a kaleidoscopic quality for many observers. No matter who your enemies are, there is a way to use the Epstein story to confirm that you are right to hate them.
No matter who your enemies are, there is a way to use the Epstein story to confirm that you are right to hate them
Such interpretations of the Epstein saga usually spare little thought for his victims, of whom there are allegedly dozens. Girls and young women plucked from difficult or dangerous circumstances and allegedly trapped in a cycle of trafficking, sexual assault, and statutory rape. These children, now women, have been denied justice by Epstein’s death. They have to continue to live with the trauma, humiliation and dehumanization of their abuse; he will not have to live through an accounting of his crimes in the press, nor a trial for them, nor a prison sentence. Many of Epstein’s victims are still anonymous, but what we know from those who have come forward indicates that his sexual abuse of girls and young women was allegedly prolific and violent. According to the documents unsealed in the Maxwell lawsuit on Friday, on at least one instance the sexual abuse by Epstein was so severe that the plaintiff in that case, alleged trafficking victim Virginia Giuffre, had to be taken to the hospital afterwards. She provided a medical record of the visit to the court.
Now that Epstein is dead, there will be no public reckoning with his crimes. He will not have to face his victims in court; the justice system will not have to stand by its often ignored principle that no one, not even a very rich man, is above the law. There will be no trial, and evidence collected in grand jury investigations will probably not be made available to the public. His death makes it much more likely that his crimes will remain secret, and much more likely that those who assisted or participated in them will get away with it. Epstein victim Jennifer Araoz told NBC News: “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.” She, and the rest of the victims, deserve better.
Following Epstein’s death, conspiracy theories sprung up almost immediately. Commentators on the right speculated that he had been murdered by powerful liberals; those on the left speculated that he had been murdered by powerful conservatives. These theories were not responses to evidence, of which there is little, so much as assertions by those who put them forward that the powers that be are not to be trusted.
The speculations may well be factually wrong – criminal justice experts have pointed out that inmate suicides are common, and that those detained in federal jails often face startling neglect – and the positing of these conspiracy theories is unhelpful, distracting from the important injustice that has been done to Epstein’s victims. The conspiracy theorists also risk undermining efforts to bring Epstein’s co-conspirators to account: their suggestions that the financier was killed to cover up the rapes and assaults of powerful men who would rather he be shut up could lend suspicion to anyone pointing out the breadth of his alleged pedophilia ring, giving those who want continued investigations of men such as Dershowitz, Pritzker and Dubin the aura of a maniac in a tinfoil hat.
But the sentiments expressed by those putting forth the conspiracy theories – namely, that officials’ accounts of events are often incomplete or unreliable, and that the elect will stop at nothing to evade accountability and maintain their grip on power – are understandable. What better proof could you ask for that the elite are corrupt, cowardly and capable of evil than the very fact that Epstein was allowed to abuse for so long in the first place?
One other reason that conspiracy theories have sprouted so prolifically in the wake of Epstein’s death is because patriarchy operates with such ruthless efficiency in denying recompense to women victims of sexual abuse that it really can seem as if nefarious forces are plotting against women’s rights in shadowy, smoke-filled rooms. The death of Epstein means that he will not be held to account for his crimes, and in this way his death is a victory for misogyny, a snatching of justice away from the women he hurt – who had briefly seemed poised, finally, to have their day in court. Even though Epstein will no longer be tried, the inquiry into his crimes and into those that abetted them can and must continue. There are still living perpetrators to be brought to account. But in death, Epstein has weaseled out of having to face the women he hurt. In that sense, he’s just another man who thought he could hurt women without ever having to answer to them – and who turned out to be right.
Moira Donegan is a Guardian US columnist