Monday's bail hearing for billionaire investor and accused sexual abuser and trafficker Jeffrey Epstein had all the makings of a classic media circus. Courthouse security was on high alert, photographers swarmed about, reporters shouted out questions. Women from Carrie Goldberg’s law firm — of revenge-porn fame — held a press conference wearing Sue A Rapist baseball caps. Inside, the courtroom was so packed that an overflow room accommodated even more reporters and onlookers, who listened with rapt attention to the heated back-and-forth between the legal teams.
Yes, this was a scene made for the tabloids. But the usual media blitz surrounding Epstein served a higher purpose this time. Because after well over a decade of tabloid fascination, private planes, exposés, and a botched federal indictment finally unveiled in a riveting multi-part series in the Miami Herald, Monday was the day that the brave young women accusing Epstein of sexually abusing them as minors and manipulating them into a twisted trafficking scheme got to face him in court.
After almost two hours of jostling between lawyers, Judge Richard Berman gave the floor to Annie Farmer and Courtney Wild, who have both spoken in the past about the abuse they allegedly suffered at the hands of Epstein. Both women spoke briefly but emotionally, with Wild saying, "He’s a scary person to have walking the streets."
"I was 16 years old when I had the misfortune of meeting Jeffrey Epstein here in New York," Annie Farmer said, as her voice cracked. "He was inappropriate with me." Epstein sat just feet away, staring at her.
Judge Berman, who is also a licensed social worker, played a big role in centering the survivors, saying in his opening remarks that he wants to make sure they have time to speak, speaking on their behalf, and taking Epstein’s team to task several times. He wasn’t convinced when Epstein's attorneys tried to argue that Epstein hadn’t re-offended in the past decade-and-a-half just because no new accusers had come forward, quickly reminding them that research shows plenty of survivors don’t do so for a variety of legitimate reasons. When Epstein’s attorneys likened his case to that of Bernie Madoff (who was granted bail), he wasn’t having it. After all, Madoff’s case was about building a massive Ponzi scheme, not allegedly sex-trafficking minors for decades.
It appears Farmer and Wild’s testimonies paid off; Judge Berman ended up rejecting Epstein’s bail application on Thursday morning and saying that he believed the billionaire was still a danger to others. Epstein will remain in prison until his trial, for which a date hasn’t yet been set.
At a time when there are still questions surrounding where the #MeToo movement is going, Epstein’s accusers matter. Their tenacity in the face of a rigged system that has denied them justice at every step is at once awe-inspiring and unfair. The fact that Epstein’s life and his own power and privilege were considered more important in 2008 — when he signed a sweetheart plea deal that allowed him to avoid federal charges — than the dozens of accusers who came forward, but were silenced and swept under the rug, underscores the importance of fighting for sexual assault survivors. Back then, prosecutors allowed him to plead to a single state prostitution charge, effectively saying to Epstein's minor accusers that they were willing participants undeserving of protection or accountability. We need to make sure the justice system doesn’t try and pull another fast one on them. Paying attention to this story means we continue the fight for all survivors to be heard.
The media circus can also be instructive because Epstein serves as an example of the failure of the justice system to punish alleged rapists and sex traffickers, no matter who they are. While it’s easy to look at his case against the backdrop of #MeToo and conclude he’s a bad man who benefitted from his own power and privilege, the reality is that it’s not just wealthy, well-connected men who get away with these crimes.
As Kimberly Mehlman-Orozco, a methodologist and research scientist who has served as a human trafficking expert witness in criminal and civil court, wrote last week, the deal that Epstein signed back in 2008 actually isn’t that different from what many convicted rapists and sex traffickers get. There’s no doubt that Epstein’s wealth and connections have played a big part in how he’s avoided serious consequences over the years as numerous law enforcement agencies have been on his tail, but the way our justice system is set up is rigged against all survivors.
So who allowed the prosecutors to get away with something like Epstein’s 2008 deal? Well, we did. We can’t keep looking at cases like Epstein’s as merely tawdry sex scandals of the rich and famous where the headlines talk about developments like they’re part of a bombshell mystery novel; in doing so, we let the Epsteins of the world and the criminal justice system off the hook. On the day of the trial, the New York Post focused on the mystery surrounding Epstein’s worth, while the Daily News highlighted the fake passport, diamonds, and extra cash found in Epstein’s safe hours prior. In the midst of Epstein’s reckoning, there seems to be more emphasis on these "juicy" details than on the fact that he was allegedly sex trafficking young girls and probably wasn’t alone in doing so.
To put this in perspective, the latest numbers estimate that there are roughly 40 million victims of human trafficking worldwide, generating around $150 billon per year. Human trafficking is also the world’s fastest-growing crime, and women and girls comprise almost three-quarters of those affected. Imagine how many of them don’t get to tell their stories or see justice served because their perpetrators weren’t high-profile enough or the details weren’t salacious enough for the media. In the case of Jeffrey Epstein, it shouldn’t have taken over a decade-and-a-half for his accusers to face him in court, let their voices be heard, and see their testimony believed. But how many other survivors are silenced and shamed as they battle every roadblock to tell the truth of what happened to them?
So let’s keep up the media circus — after all, public outrage can fuel the quest for truth. Just look at Donald Trump’s Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta, who resigned last week after mounting public and media pressure when people learned that he was the architect of Epstein’s 2008 plea deal as the top prosecutor in Miami. Imagine how much progress we’d see if we didn’t treat Epstein like the latest gossip-rag story and expanded our outrage to all of the enablers of injustice when it comes to cases like his.
Considering how deep his network seems to go, it’ll be no surprise if we see many other powerful men eventually come crashing down with him. So let’s stay angry. Let’s stay on top of this. And let’s keep our institutions — including our press and our justice system — on top of it, too.