A federal judge in New York on Tuesday called Jeffrey Epstein’s suicide a “rather stunning turn of events” as he opened a court hearing where women were scheduled to speak about their accusations the wealthy financier sexually assaulted them.
The hearing was scheduled last week by U.S. District Judge Richard Berman, who presided over the case prosecutors brought against Epstein after the 66-year-old convicted felon was arrested July 6 upon arrival at a New Jersey airport from Paris.
“The news on Aug. 10 that Jeffrey Epstein had been found dead in his cell … was certainly shocking,” Berman said.
“It is a rather stunning turn of events.”
A New York City coroner has formally classified the Aug. 10 death a suicide.
The judge set the hearing after prosecutors asked that he scrap charges against Epstein since the defendant is dead. Berman said he would give prosecutors, Epstein’s lawyers and any victims a chance to speak.
Before he allowed others to speak, Berman blasted a published report that criticized the public hearing and noted requests by prosecutors to drop charges were routinely handled without a hearing.
He said the article in a legal publication suggested the hearing was introducing drama into the court process.
“What little drama might happen today, I don’t think, would be very significant,” Berman said. “Public hearings … promote transparency, and provide the court with insights and information that the court might otherwise not be aware of.”
It was important the women be heard at this stage in the process, he added.
During the hearing, lawyer Brad Edwards, who represents women who say they were sexually abused by Epstein, said, “I have in the courtroom today 15 victims I represent and have represented over the years. There are at least 20 more who didn’t make this hearing today.”
Edwards also said Epstein’s “untimely death” was “curious.”
“I feel very angry and sad that justice has never been served in this case,” said Courtney Wild, a complainant represented by Edwards.
I have in the courtroom today 15 victims I represent and have represented over the years. There are at least 20 more who didn’t make this hearing today.– Brad Edwards, lawyer
Since the hearing was scheduled, it was revealed Epstein signed a will just two days before his suicide, putting over $577 million US in assets into a trust fund. The will, filed in the Virgin Islands where Epstein maintained a residence, was expected to make it more difficult for dozens of complainants to collect damages.
Epstein had pleaded not guilty to sex-trafficking charges and was held without bail, accused of sexually abusing women in the early 2000s at mansions in New York City and Florida.
Since his death, an angry U.S. Attorney General William Barr has vowed that anyone who aided Epstein in sex trafficking will be pursued in a continuing investigation.
He also removed the acting director of the Bureau of Prisons from his position, placed two guards who were supposed to be watching Epstein the morning he died on administrative leave and temporarily reassigned the warden to the Metropolitan Correctional Center.
Barr has said officials had uncovered “serious irregularities” and was angry that staff members at the federal lockup had failed to “adequately secure this prisoner.”
At the time of his death, Epstein was preparing through his lawyers to argue in court papers due in September that he could not be prosecuted because he signed a no-prosecution deal with prosecutors a dozen years ago in Florida. Prosecutors in New York said that deal did not prevent the new charges. Epstein signed it before he pleaded guilty to Florida state charges in 2008, admitting sexual relations with teenage girls under the age of consent.
The suicide happened despite a warning in late July when Epstein was found on the floor of his cell with bruises to his neck. After Epstein died, Berman asked the jail’s warden for answers about that episode, saying it had never been “definitively explained.”
Epstein spent a few days under suicide watch, but was transferred back to a cell in a Special Housing Unit where he had a cellmate. Eventually, though, the cellmate was taken out and he was left alone.
With files from Reuters