When death shuts down justice, it also shuts down the voices of victims. Death closes criminal files and ignores the need to provide restitution to victims, leaving them only to file civil claims. Victims lose their ability to publicly speak in criminal court about the crimes committed against them, which can be an important step in their paths to healing.
That is why there is no one who feels the pain of Jeffrey Epstein’s death more than his victims: His passing signifies more silence, slower healing and a lack of justice for his victims because, in death, he escapes any penalties for his criminal actions and taking responsibility for any wrongdoing. Mostly, he escapes facing his victims, ever saying “I’m sorry” or acknowledging to his victims that he hurt them.
For Epstein, like he handled all his business, his death was about his needs; he invested in himself with the act of suicide, both escaping externally imposed penalties and benefiting at the expense of his vulnerable victims. His suicide was a continuation of his entitlement mentality and a final act of control over his victims, his ultimate attempt to shut them up and shut them down.
To those who say that Epstein never had his day in court and should be presumed innocent because he was not found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt — which is the basis of our system of justice — I encourage you to think about circumstantial and direct evidence, both of which can be used by a jury during its deliberations. Epstein, by refusing to face his accusers, failing to provide a valid defense and choosing to escape consequences through death, leaves us with the circumstantial evidence necessary to believe that he is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of all the charges made by his victims. If that isn’t enough, there is additional direct evidence of his guilt by multiple accusers — the victims he left behind — who have verbalized countless crimes.
But following Epstein’s death, U.S District Judge Richard Berman, who oversaw the case, did not simply close it after prosecutors’ request to dismiss the charges, and I publicly credit and thank him for that decision. Instead, Berman allowed all the victims — who were cheated out of their right to face the defendant — all the time they needed to speak their truth in open court and returned control to them, letting them know that they matter. Berman respected them and their suffering by giving them a safe space to verbalize the atrocities they endured, in a courtroom before a judge who believed them, empowered them and allowed them to leave their pain in his courtroom to begin healing.
Berman prioritized the healing of the victims over his schedule, which some judges treat as sacrosanct. Treating each case and every party as if they are the only one of importance at any given time is paramount to our system of justice. And, ensuring voice and restitution to victims is mandated by the Crime Victims' Rights Act — however, every judge is allowed to interpret the act using her or his own discretion. Berman interpreted the act exactly right and his actions should be applauded, emulated and recognized as the new norm in our broken justice system.
Berman forced Epstein to listen, even in death, as victims publicly confronted him; a responsible media helped in this, by keeping the public informed and all officers of the court accountable to the people. By listening, he let each victim know he believed them, which will aid in deterring others committing like offenses. It is a right step in stopping the epidemic of sexual assault and human trafficking. It is a right step in letting victims know that they matter, that they are believed and that they are safe.
There are also other steps that need to be taken to fix the justice system and to end the epidemic of sexual assault and human trafficking. Legislatures must mandate a broad definition of victim under the Crime Victims’ Rights Act that includes anyone affected by the crime, which will take into account the vast rippling effect of crime. Judges would then be required to allow all crime victims — not just those of the pled-to counts — to testify at sentencing, as I did in the case of Larry Nassar.
Beyond that, protocols must be established with regular retraining in every workplace, and especially among law enforcement agencies, so that victims are believed and evidence is collected and not tainted. Statutes of limitations must be significantly extended, as they were in New York this year, or simply removed. Expand the list of mandatory reporters beyond teachers and therapists, and, while ensuring that those who make mistakes are not prosecuted, see that those who knowingly fail to report and thus protect vulnerable individuals are.
Each and every wrongful touching must be charged by prosecutors to ensure that victims know they have truly been heard, instead of prosecutors only charging when they think they have enough counts for large convictions. And, as we expand the rights of victims, we must acknowledge the rights of even the small number of people falsely accused: There must be charges brought against and penalties imposed against those who the courts determine have falsely reported.
We must also take deterrence and education to a higher level: Teach people from the time they learn to talk about their body parts, their right to say no, informed consent, and what to look for to stay safe — including how to recognize grooming and other predatory behavior. Have mandatory classes in grade school, junior high and high school, higher education, then continue it in the workforce.
There is so much work to be done to end this epidemic in our society that, if we do not begin with the basics, we will not even begin to eliminate sexual assault and human trafficking, and the tragedy will continue. No one is immune. It is not just happening in other communities; it is happening in yours. It may be happening to someone you know; it may even be happening in your own house.
Together, let’s work to change the culture of silence, shame and sexual assault. Change is thousands of years past due.