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The Jeffrey Epstein case reemerged in the news cycle this week after two jail guards responsible for monitoring him were charged with falsifying records to conceal they had neglected their duties on the night of his death.
Epstein, a wealthy money manager with a long list of high-profile acquaintances, died in custody in August at a federal jail in New York while facing sex trafficking charges. His death was ruled a suicide, but speculation that he was actually murdered has been widespread ever since. The prevailing hypothesis is that Epstein was killed before he had the chance to implicate powerful people in his crimes.
The theorizing isn’t just limited to the internet, where conspiracies abound. The head of the U.S. government’s Bureau of Prisons was pressed by lawmakers during a congressional hearing on Tuesday. “Christmas ornaments, drywall and Jeffrey Epstein — name three things that don’t hang themselves,” Sen. John Kennedy said. Even the president has promoted alternate theories of Epstein’s death.
The phrase “Epstein didn't kill himself” has been scrawled as graffiti, sneaked into an unrelated interview on Fox News and spelled out cryptically in a congressman’s Twitter feed. One poll found that only 29 percent of Americans believe Epstein’s death was a suicide.
Why there’s debate
There are many opinions on why the murder theories persist, despite repeated assertions from authorities that Epstein's death was a suicide. One of the most prominent reasons is that the true circumstances really do look like something that could be cooked up in a conspiracy. A rich financier with mysterious business ties who could potentially implicate a long list of powerful people in crimes is the type of person popular culture has taught us to assume would be killed. Epstein’s government connections, who include former President Bill Clinton and President Trump, also lets theorizers blame whichever political bogeyman they prefer.
Another popular explanation for persistent conspiracies is that the official story is rather mundane and could be seen as an unsatisfying narrative end to such a spectacular scandal. Accepting that Epstein died by suicide means confronting the deep systemic problems with U.S. jails.
Finally, internet social experts say that Epstein death theories have been taken up as a popular culture meme, much in the way that the death of Harambe the gorilla has endured in online circles.
Exploration of Epstein’s life and death are set to continue on a number of fronts. Both jail guards accused of neglect leading to Epstein’s death have pleaded not guilty, setting the stage for a future trial where more details may come out. The investigation into Epstein’s alleged crimes is also ongoing with a focus on possible co-conspirators. Meanwhile, a number of Epstein’s alleged victims have filed lawsuits against his estate.
The Epstein case provides a blank canvas for a variety of conspiracies
“No matter who they think did it — the Clintons, some cabal of sex-trafficking elites, the deep state, Trump — Epstein truthers managed to distill the bit they agreed on into an accessible, shareable catchphrase. Leaving it at ‘Epstein didn’t kill himself’ allows every skeptic to choose their own adventure while still being able to participate in the meme.” — Emma Grey Ellis, Wired
The details of the case make questioning the official story a rational reaction
“To take the sudden death of such a man in stride — a man whose alleged misdeeds cast him as a veritable pimp to the elite, not to mention a monster in his own right — would be a bit irrational, I think, even if it had happened in Times Square at noon on a clear day.” — Walter Kirn, New York Times
A lot of people spreading the conspiracies are doing it for fun
“A lot of people participating in this meme might not actually even believe it's completely true. … Part of the meme is to, you know, sneak the phrase ‘Jeffrey Epstein didn't kill himself’ into … the punchline to a joke.” — Know Your Meme editor Don Caldwell to NPR
Epstein’s life was full of mystery, which fuels speculation about his death
“The case remains ripe for conspiracy theories because so many of the most important questions about how Epstein gained and retained his power have gone unanswered.” — Anna North, Vox
The case highlights a general distrust of American institutions
“The signature of American politics in the Trump era is a conviction — shared initially by many people who backed Trump but now embraced with similar fervor by many who loathe him — that things are not what they seem, that the official version of events is sustained by lies, that the institutions of American life are not on the level.” — John F. Harris, Politico
Powerful people who duck questions about Epstein fuel conspiracies
“Gee, it is so odd that Americans believe conspiracy theories about Jeffrey Epstein’s death, isn’t it? Particularly when so many wealthy and powerful people are so forthcoming, honest, direct, and clear about what happened and why.” — Jim Geraghty, National Review
It’s easier to believe in murder than to believe how broken the justice system is
“Our brains like conspiracy theories because they have satisfying explanatory power and, crucially, present a pattern to which we can intelligibly respond. One murderous guard or inmate in Epstein's jail cell is an easier situation to tackle than systemic problems with our justice system.” — Bonnie Kristian, The Week
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Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services/Handout via Reuters, Getty Images