NEW YORK – Women who say they were sexually assaulted as children by Jeffrey Epstein finally had their day in court Tuesday, venting anger, shedding tears and demanding justice from those who recruited them for the multimillionaire financier.
Just over two weeks after Epstein, 66, died in his jail cell from what an autopsy report classified as a suicide, 23 women either spoke in court or had their statements read by lawyers in a hearing over whether to dismiss his sex trafficking indictment.
U.S. District Judge Richard Berman invited and applauded the statements, saying the experiences of victims are an important part of the criminal justice system.
Older now, many still with the blond locks preferred by Epstein, the women approached a podium in the cavernous first-floor courtroom in lower Manhattan. Many, still badly shaken by their experiences, asked to be identified only as Jane Does.
Courtney Wild, who spoke of being abused at Epstein’s mansion in Palm Beach, Florida, when she was 14, said she was “very angry and sad” that he killed himself before a trial where his accusers could confront him.
“Jeffrey Epstein robbed myself and all the other victims of our day in court to confront him one by one, and for that, he is a coward,” Wild said. “I feel very angry and sad that justice has never been served in this case.”
Jennifer Araoz, who has accused Epstein of raping her in his Manhattan mansion when she was 15, said he robbed her of dreams to pursue a career in entertainment.
“The fact I will never have a chance to face my predator in court eats away at me,” she said. “They let this man kill himself and kill the chance for justice for so many others.”
Although many of the women recounted slightly different versions of sexual recruitments, attacks and locales, all stood together, with some wiping away others’ tears after speaking out about horrors they had long kept private.
“He could not begin to fathom what he took from us, and I say ‘us’ because I am every
girl he did this to, and they’re all me,” said actress Anouska De Georgiou. “And today we stand together, those that are present and those that aren’t.”
Many of the accusers pleaded with the judge and federal prosecutors to pursue former Epstein associates they said aided and abetted the sexual attacks by recruiting and grooming them to fulfill his desires.
“He will not have his day in court, but the reckoning of accountability has begun, supported by the voices of these brave and beautiful women in this courtroom today,” said Virginia Roberts Giuffre, who said she was 16 when Epstein’s ex-girlfriend Ghislaine Maxwell recruited her outside her job at Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club in Florida.
“The reckoning must not end. It must continue. He did not act alone and we, the victims, know that,” Roberts Giuffre said.
“Please, please finish what you have started,” pleaded Sarah Ransome, who said she was a victim “of Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell’s international sex trafficking ring.”
“We all know he did not act alone,” she said. “We are survivors, and the pursuit of justice should not abate.”
Maxwell has denied any involvement in or awareness of wrongdoing by Epstein.
Berman did not immediately rule on dismissing the Epstein indictment that was unsealed in July. Dismissal is normally routine in cases where a criminal defendant dies before trial or conviction. Berman offered no immediate explanation in court.
Federal prosecutors said an investigation of charges against others is continuing.
“Dismissal of this indictment as to Jeffrey Epstein in no way prohibits or inhibits the government’s ongoing investigation into other potential co-conspirators, nor does it prevent the bringing of a new case in the future or the prosecution of new defendants,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Maurene Comey said.
Epstein’s lawyers, meanwhile, called for a different investigation – one focused on the circumstances of Epstein’s death. Challenging the official finding that Epstein hung himself, they cited other possibilities.
Defense lawyer Martin Weinberg told Berman that medical and scientific experts consulted by the defense team said Epstein’s neck injuries could have resulted from suicide but were more consistent with homicide or an attack involving strangulation.
Weinberg asked the court to delay dismissal of the indictment and oversee an investigation of Epstein’s death, as well as conditions inside the Metropolitan Correctional Center, where the financier died.
The request drew a challenge from prosecutors. But Berman said Weinberg had a right to raise the concerns.
What is the hyoid bone? What can a tiny bone tell us about Jeffrey Epstein’s death?
Berman also dismissed critics, including commentary in the New York Law Journal, that suggested Tuesday’s court proceeding “seems more like a show than a real hearing.”
“A few may differ on this, but public hearings are exactly what judges do. Hearings promote transparency and they provide the court with insights and information which the court may not otherwise be aware of,” said the judge.
As several of Epstein’s accusers note, the financier’s social orbit once included the rich and famous, from Bill Clinton and a pre-White House Trump, to Britain’s Prince Andrew and L Brands retail billionaire Leslie Wexner. However, Epstein spent his last days in a cell at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Lower Manhattan.
His death gave life to an abundance of conspiracy theories in social media, about who might have wanted Epstein silenced. Some Democrats criticized Trump for retweeting a no-evidence theory that appeared to suggest a link between Clinton and Epstein’s death.
Dr. Barbara Sampson, New York City’s chief medical examiner, ultimately ruled that Epstein committed suicide by hanging himself.
Epstein’s suicide sparked continuing investigations into security and staffing at the Manhattan federal jail. His defense team, citing suspected irregularities at the lockup such as a corrupted or disabled video camera near Epstein’s cell said the court should oversee or monitor the investigations.
“For us, the elephant in the room is, ‘What happened to our client?'” said defense attorney Reid Weingarten.
The Epstein indictment, unsealed in July, charged he sexually exploited and abused dozens of underage girls at his mansions in Manhattan, Palm Beach, Florida, and elsewhere from 2002 to 2005. The charges included sex trafficking and conspiracy, allegations that, had they been proved at trial, would have landed Epstein in prison for decades.
Epstein previously eluded a lengthy prison term after investigations by state and federal investigators in Florida found evidence of similar alleged crimes involving sexual abuse of young girls.
Instead, Epstein reached a plea bargain deal in which he admitted guilt to state charges of soliciting and procuring a person under 18 for prostitution.
He served 13 months in a private wing of the Palm County stockade. But Epstein was allowed to spend the bulk of his sentence’s daylight hours at his nearby office under a work-release program.
The circumstances of his Florida detention are now being examined under renewed law enforcement and government scrutiny.
Federal prosecutors in Florida also investigated Epstein for similar sex trafficking allegations. But they ultimately agreed to a 2007 non-prosecution deal that also promised legal immunity from federal charges for several of Epstein’s associates.
Alexander Acosta, the Florida U.S. Attorney on the case at the time, resigned as Trump’s Labor secretary in July amid renewed public criticism about the handling of the earlier case.
Weingarten told Berman that the defense team had mustered strong legal arguments that the non-prosecution agreement in Florida was a “universal” deal that should have barred prosecutors from proceeding with the latest case.
Epstein’s death deprived both prosecutors and women who said he had sexually molested them of their prime legal target. But prosecutors and victims could try to pursue respective criminal and civil charges against some of the financier’s former associates on grounds that they abetted the financier’s alleged attacks.
Some of the ex-associates have denied knowing about or participating in any Epstein-related wrongdoing. Former associates, including Clinton, Trump and Prince Andrew, have sought to distance themselves from Epstein. Wexner went further, accusing Epstein of misappropriating “vast sums of money” from him and his family.
Epstein’s estimated $500 million-plus legal estate has been targeted in lawsuits by at least six women.
Epstein signed a will two days before his Aug. 10 suicide, leaving his fortune to a private trust. That action could make it more difficult for his accusers to win financial recoveries from his estate.
Contributing: The Associated Press. Follow USA TODAY reporter Kevin McCoy on Twitter: @kmccoynyc
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Jeffrey Epstein accusers speak in Manhattan courtroom