There are a lot of complicated threads to untangle in the case of billionaire Jeffrey Epstein, the Gatsbyesque financier who owns six homes — including mansions in Palm Beach and Manhattan — two private jets and a Caribbean island, and has a sexual predilection for teenage girls.
We cannot forget that, at heart, this is a very high-end version of the same treatment that victims of sexual crimes — particularly young women — receive at the hands of the justice system all the time.
As is too often the case when high-profile men are accused of sexual misconduct, Epstein’s money and connections allowed him to receive a relative slap on the wrist 11 years ago in Florida after he pleaded guilty to sexually exploiting teenage girls. The deal was made in secret; the victims were not informed of it. Epstein, who had made financial settlements with dozens of victims, spent 13 months in jail, though he was allowed to leave the jail 12 hours a day, six days a week. He was also required to register as a sex offender.
Wouldn’t you think even a highflying billionaire would be chastened by that? Apparently not.
In 2011, Epstein told the New York Post:
“I’m not a sexual predator, I’m an ‘offender.’ It’s the difference between a murderer and a person who steals a bagel.”
Yeah, well, guess what? Human beings are not bagels, and minors cannot be prostitutes.
If a grown man is convicted of having sex with a child, he’s a criminal who deserves prison time, not work release.
Last November, a Miami Herald series rekindled interest in Epstein’s case. The report outlined the bizarrely lenient treatment he received from federal prosecutors in the Southern District of Florida, led by then-U.S. Atty. R. Alexander Acosta, who is now President Trump’s secretary of Labor. Herald investigative reporter Julie K. Brown tracked down 80 victims, and was able to get many of them to open up about their experiences with Epstein.
In a thinly veiled rebuke to Acosta, federal prosecutors in New York’s Southern District have now charged Epstein with sex trafficking and conspiracy, alleging he paid girls as young as 14 for sex and also used them to recruit other girls between 2002 and 2005. He was arrested Saturday in New Jersey as he returned in his private jet from Paris.
This time, Epstein faces up to 45 years in prison. He has pleaded not guilty.
The case is exceptional for the number of alleged victims and the social status of the perpetrator, who has been friendly with President Trump, former President Clinton and Prince Andrew, among others.
But the leniency accorded Epstein is entirely, and sadly, familiar.
Recently, a New Jersey appeals court reprimanded a family court judge for saying that a 16-year-old who was accused of raping a drunk 16-year-old girl, filming the assault and sending it to friends, should not be tried as an adult because he came from a good family, was an Eagle Scout and had good grades.
Three days later, the same appeals court panel rebuked a different family court judge in the case of a 16-year-old boy accused of raping a 12-year-old girl. The lower court judge in that case — a woman — sounded like she’s been under a rock for the last 30 years.
“The victim claimed that the [alleged rapist] pushed her, grabbed her hands, removed her clothing and then penetrated her without her actual consent,” wrote Judge Marcia Silva. “However, beyond losing her virginity, the State did not claim that the victim suffered any further injuries, either physical, mental or emotional.”
Some Democratic elected officials and women’s rights activists are calling for both judges to be removed from the bench.
That is not an unreasonable demand.
Last year, Santa Clara Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky was recalled by voters after delivering a light jail sentence to Stanford swimmer Brock Turner, who had been convicted of sexually assaulting a drunk woman outside a fraternity party.
The recall was organized and pushed by Stanford law professor Michele Dauber, who was intensely criticized by many legal experts for trying to punish a judge for exercising his discretion. But you know what? She was right. And so was the New Jersey appeals court.
If removing judges is what it takes to bring them around to the idea that rape is a serious, life-altering, soul-killing crime, so be it.
Which brings us to Acosta, the Labor secretary who, as the U.S. attorney in Florida, oversaw Epstein’s secret deal. On Monday, Acosta disingenuously tweeted: “The crimes committed by Epstein are horrific, and I am pleased that NY prosecutors are moving forward with a case based on new evidence.”
They were also horrific when Epstein was charged back in 2008.
On Monday, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi insisted that Acosta resign:
“As US Attorney, he engaged in an unconscionable agreement w/ Jeffrey Epstein kept secret from courageous, young victims preventing them from seeking justice,” Pelosi tweeted. “This was known by @POTUS when he appointed him to the cabinet. #AcostaResign.”
By Wednesday, Acosta was clearly fighting for his job. In an hour-long news conference, he tried to make the case that his office had rescued the case from the ineptitude of state prosecutors in Florida, and that the agreement was kept secret from the victims in order to protect them. The record, however, shows that victims’ attorneys were not only kept in the dark about the plea agreement, but had to fight like hell to find out exactly what it was.
Acosta also spoke of 2008 as if it were so far back in time that attitudes toward sexual assault victims were completely different than they are now. This is hogwash. Yes, victims of rape and sexual assault will always face an uphill battle for justice, especially when rich and powerful are the accused. But it’s been 25 years since Congress enacted a rape shield law, which limits a defendant’s ability to attack a victim’s credibility by presenting evidence of her sexual activity, history or reputation. States have them, too. Where has Alex Acosta been?
Trump defended Acosta on Tuesday, but acknowledged that the secretary probably wished he had handled the case “a different way.”
I’m sure that’s true now that his appallingly gentle handling of a serial sexual offender has come to light.
Making deals with child molesters is so much easier when it’s done in private.