Jeffrey Epstein’s apparent suicide is a significant obstacle for federal prosecutors, who spent months painstakingly building a case against the multimillionaire who was charged in July in New York federal court with sex trafficking of minors.
Now, the dozen or more new victims who came forward after Epstein’s July arrest will never get their day to face him in court. And what kind of financial compensation the future holds for them, if any, is uncertain.
In an indictment filed in the Southern District of New York in July, federal prosecutors laid out their intention to confiscate Epstein’s properties that were used to facilitate the sexual abuse of minor victims. However, his death poses a significant challenge in using asset forfeiture to provide restitution to the multimillionaire’s alleged victims.
“It’s going to be complicated,” former federal prosecutor Jeff Marcus said.
Under federal forfeiture laws, hard assets like homes can be sold and the proceeds put into a special fund within the Department of Justice. A judge determines what ultimately happens to the proceeds, but in cases with victims, restitution is generally a first consideration, said former federal prosecutor Silvia Piñera-Vazquez.
The federal indictment filed against Epstein in July identified his seven-story mansion on the Upper East Side of Manhattan as the property set to be confiscated. (Other homes could have been added later.) It was there that authorities found evidence that Epstein allegedly abused numerous underage girls between 2002 and 2005, according to the indictment.
BEHIND OUR REPORTING
Local Reporting Makes a Difference
In her year-long investigation of Palm Beach multimillionaire Jeffrey Epstein, Miami Herald reporter Julie Brown tracked down more than 60 women who said they were victims of abuse and revealed the full story behind the sweetheart deal cut by Epstein’s powerhouse legal team.
Since the Herald published ‘Perversion of Justice’ in November 2018, a federal judge ruled the non-prosecution agreement brokered by then South Florida U.S. Attorney Alexander Acosta was illegal, Epstein was arrested on sex trafficking charges in New York state, Acosta resigned as U.S. Secretary of Labor, and Epstein killed himself in his Manhattan jail cell.
Investigative journalism makes a difference. Your support makes it possible. Click here to subscribe today.
Epstein, who pleaded guilty to soliciting minors in Palm Beach in 2008, pleaded not guilty to the recent charges in New York and a trial was tentatively set for June 2020. Now, that trial won’t happen and without a final guilty verdict, a criminal forfeiture of his assets in that case is not possible.
“When someone passes away in the middle of a case — even if convicted — there is no final judgment until after the appeal process,” Piñera-Vazquez said.
Without a forfeiture of assets, Piñera-Vazquez said the only alternative would be to sue Epstein’s estate in civil court.
Epstein, who was immensely wealthy, has no wife or known children but he does have at least one brother. He has also been known to donate large sums to charity and scientific endeavors. His estate includes homes in Florida, New York, New Mexico, the Virgin Islands and France worth hundreds of millions combined.
Federal authorities could still file a civil forfeiture case in an effort to confiscate Epstein’s properties even without a criminal conviction, according to Marcus.
There is precedent for such a move. In 2007, the Department of Justice brought a civil forfeiture action against the estate of the founder of Enron Corporation, CEO Kenneth Lay, who died of a heart attack while facing charges of engineering a massive fraud.
Marcus said he thinks it’s likely that federal prosecutors will do the same in this case due to the number of victims and the vast extent of the estate.
“I think a lot of this is they’re trying to bring redress for victims,” Marcus said.
If a civil forfeiture is filed, a federal judge in civil court would rule on the crimes laid out in the prosecution’s case using the standard of a “preponderance of evidence,” a lower threshold than that used to determine guilt in criminal cases.
Prosecutors would have to present compelling evidence that each asset to be seized was connected to criminal activity. No matter what, Epstein himself won’t be found guilty of the crime, but his estate could still be made to provide restitution to his victims.
Even if prosecutors go that route, the process is likely to be long and drawn out, said another former prosecutor, Joe DeMaria.
“It took seven years for that civil forfeiture case to be settled and the government recovered less than 25 percent of what it sought,” said DeMaria. In that case, the evidence against Lay had already been presented during trial. Lay was awaiting sentencing when he died.
Epstein already paid restitution to some victims as part of his controversial non-prosecution agreement in Palm Beach County in 2008, which allowed him to avoid prison for federal sex trafficking charges in exchange for entering a plea in state court. At the time, a portion of Epstein’s money was set aside as a compensation pool and an agent was assigned by the court to oversee it. If victims agreed not to pursue individual lawsuits, they could stake a claim to part of the money. Some opted instead to sue.
Since then, others accusers have come forward — including after Epstein’s July arrest — and more lawsuits were anticipated.
“Now he [Epstein] is gone and now his estate should be preserving his assets for the benefit of his many victims,” said attorney Lisa Bloom on MSNBC’s AM Joy Saturday. Bloom, who represents some of Epstein’s alleged victims, said her clients are on the verge of filing a civil suit.
In a statement published by Fox News Saturday, one of Epstein’s attorneys, Marc Fernich, cited “greedy plaintiffs” as among the culprits in Epstein’s apparent suicide.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office for Southern New York, meanwhile, issued a statement suggesting the case is not over and that charges could come against others:
“To those brave young women who have already come forward and to the many others who have yet to do so ... we remain committed to standing for you, and our investigation of the conduct charged in the indictment — which included a conspiracy count — remains ongoing.”
Victims may not be the only ones laying claim to part of the estate. Wasting no time, an organization called Morse Genealogical Services unveiled a website soliciting information regarding unknown children potentially fathered by Epstein.
“We have reason to believe that based on his [Epstein’s] behavior that there may be some unidentified children that are out there and as such, they would likely be entitled to claim against the estate,” said Ari Morse, a representative of the genealogical research firm.
If anyone comes forward, the firm would combine various techniques, including DNA testing and in-depth movement histories of both Epstein and their client, to help stake the person’s claim to part of the estate.
In the past Epstein has given large sums of money to charity, including $2 million to Harvard University. Despite harsh criticism before and after Epstein’s July arrest, the university has shown no inclination to return the money that some view as tainted in light of Epstein’s alleged crimes.
Epstein also obsessively poured money into scientific pursuits, including eugenics, cryonics, and even one strange study he bankrolled into a mystery particle that triggered the feeling that someone is looking at you, according to reporting from The New York Times.
According to the Times, Epstein had planned to freeze his head and penis.
“Maybe they should first read Epstein’s will,” said DeMaria. “If he bequeathed all of his assets to charities or scientific foundations, that may be a better way. To make good use of the money would be to determine if one of those charities would use the funds to study the prevention of this kind of abuse in the future.”
This article has been updated to add quotes from former prosecutor Joe DeMaria.