The reaction to the death of Jeffrey Epstein has not been one of heartbreak. Indeed, many would say that the tragedy of his death by apparent suicide at the Metropolitan Correctional Center on Manhattan is not his, but his victims', who will now never see him stand trial for the full extent of his crimes.
The immediate – and near-universal – reaction to Epstein’s death has been disbelief that a defendant as high-profile as Epstein could be able to seemingly take his own life in prison, less than three weeks after an apparent suicide attempt. That disbelief has crystallised into something almost paranoid.
Unsurprisingly, given Epstein’s extensive and powerful connections – to the British royal family, the Trump family, the Clintons, and numerous others – many have immediately come to suspect foul play: did Epstein know too much? Was he killed to cover up the crimes of others? Is there a conspiracy afoot?
Some people have come to this conclusion without any evidence, and will never be moved from it. But while there is certainly a case for a comprehensive and very public investigation into Epstein’s death, there are reasons to doubt whether it had to be foul play.
The first of those is simply that the US prison system is dire and in crisis. Mistakes and failings happen all the time, so if Epstein was determined enough to kill himself, it is not impossible to believe the opportunity could present itself.
But the key question is to examine whether Epstein’s death will actually help his suspected accomplices, or others involved in the network of sexual abuse many believe he operated in. That’s certainly been most people’s immediate assumption – that with him "out the way", others will be safe from being implicated during a public trial, and victims will stand to lose out. If anything, however, the opposite might be true.
If Epstein had been about to turn on his former accomplices and become a whistleblower, it would make sense that silencing him would protect those concerned. But there has been no suggestion he was going to do that, and little reason to believe he would.
Epstein was not accused of being a low-level member of a crime gang. Whether he turned or not – and he stayed silent when first faced with these crimes more than a decade ago – he was facing life in prison. There was little incentive for him to talk, given he was set to die in prison either way.
Beyond that, while Epstein’s death means his victims will not see him face criminal trial, it does not spell an end to legal proceedings – in some ways, it opens them up. President Trump’s attorney general William Barr has already announced the Department of Justice will conduct an investigation into Epstein’s apparent suicide, alongside the FBI.
Both of these will face scrutiny, not just from the media and the public, but almost certainly from Congressional committees, given Trump’s willingness to use the death as fodder against his political rivals. The president – a former associate of Epstein's – has faced condemnation for quickly trying to blame the Clintons by retweeting conspiracy theories on Twitter. This suggests that Trump knows that the matter is far from closed, whether Epstein is dead or alive.
Epstein also leaves behind an estate likely worth hundreds of millions of dollars. This creates a backdrop for what will likely be years of civil lawsuits from victims and others seeking reparations – and so a form of proxy justice, a backdoor route to have their cases heard, in civil form since a criminal trial was denied them.
But crucially, Epstein’s death does not end the criminal trial. While the Grand Jury documents remain under seal from the press and the public, this does not mean that prosecutors can’t use them. In fact, prosecutors have already said they are still pursuing the case and looking for new suspects – so while the case against Epstein has ended with his death, the broader case has not.
In some ways, the case will be easier to pursue. Secrets are generally harder to keep when the person at their core is no longer with us – people talk more freely, people find old records, things come apart. In purely practical terms, authorities will have far easier access to Epstein’s estate with him dead than when he was alive.
None of this will stop the conspiracy theories, which will surely rage for generations. Nor should it mean we run ahead of evidence and rule out a conspiracy ahead of time. What it should do is cool our heads and encourage us to do the right thing for any victims: to follow the evidence trail, wherever it may lead.