In pursuit of high-profile sex abusers, is balance of power shifting?

Richard Drew/AP
Geoffrey Berman, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, speaks during a news conference in New York July 8, 2019. Federal prosecutors announced sex trafficking and conspiracy charges against wealthy financier Jeffrey Epstein.

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Friday’s resignation of Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta bookends a week that started with new charges against financier Jeffrey Epstein, a registered sex offender.

Secretary Acosta brokered a plea deal for Mr. Epstein more than a decade ago when he was a U.S. attorney, one that is now being scrutinized for legal inconsistencies, particularly with regard to notifying victims about the deal. The willingness of authorities to prosecute Mr. Epstein now sends a strong message to survivors that if they keep pressing forward, they will be heard, advocates say.  

It also represents a shift in public thinking about such cases. Given the exposure of Catholic Church and other high-level sexual abuse, and the #MeToo movement that has revealed sexual assaults by a wide range of powerful men in Hollywood and beyond, “there is a difference in the culture now and then with respect to rich people and sexual abuse. There’s less tolerance of it,” says Kenneth White, a former assistant U.S. attorney for the Central District of California. “The same power that lets you off easy, when the culture changes, can bring the focus back on you in a way that sinks you.”

Why We Wrote This

Prosecuting cases against wealthy defendants has often been an uphill battle for sex crime survivors. The Epstein case suggests a change in attitude – and the potential for greater equity.

New charges against Jeffrey Epstein have not yet been proven in court – and it could be years before any final resolution of the child sex trafficking case brought by federal prosecutors in Manhattan Monday. 

But when the financier and registered sex offender went to jail this week, relief was palpable among a growing chorus of people who say he avoided serious criminal penalties more than a decade ago because of his extreme wealth and social connections.

The new criminal charges – and the resignation Friday morning of Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta for his role overseeing a plea deal for Mr. Epstein when he was a federal prosecutor – have stirred their hope that the balance of power may be shifting when it comes to pursuit of justice against high-profile people.

Why We Wrote This

Prosecuting cases against wealthy defendants has often been an uphill battle for sex crime survivors. The Epstein case suggests a change in attitude – and the potential for greater equity.

The willingness to prosecute Mr. Epstein sends a strong message “to other survivors, which is, ‘Keep pressing forward and one day you will be heard,’” says Michael Dolce, a Florida-based lawyer who handles sexual abuse cases at Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll.

The persistence of some of Mr. Epstein’s Florida victims to challenge the plea bargain in federal court there, and a deep-dive investigative journalism project by the Miami Herald late last year, encouraged New York officials to pursue their own investigation.

On Thursday, Mr. Epstein requested a mansion and a jet be used as collateral in order to convince a judge to free him pending trial. It was an unsurprising offer by someone who has come to symbolize the outsized role that wealth, power, and fame can play in what is supposed to be a justice system blind to such factors. 

The judge will rule on the request on Monday. But whether Mr. Epstein remains in pre-trial custody or not, his story could now symbolize another step in the trends of rising female agency and demands for more fair applications of law.   

The Epstein saga also falls at the intersection of public opinion about criminal justice from both sides of the political aisle: concern on the left about gender inequality (some of it tied to President Donald Trump’s own behavior toward women and apparent immunity) and rumblings on the right about rich and powerful insiders appearing to be conspiring against the common man or woman.

“When it comes to criminal justice issues, conservatives have different views than Democrats, but … the trend for both groups has been toward transparency, toward concern for vulnerable victims, and a little less concern about street crimes like robbery,” says Justin Pickett, who studies the role of public opinion on criminal justice policy at University at Albany, SUNY.

Just two days before his resignation, Secretary Acosta had held a press conference to defend his work on the case as the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Florida: “We believe that we proceeded appropriately, that, based on the evidence, there was value to getting a guilty plea and having him registered” as a sex offender, he said.

Andrew Harnik/AP
President Donald Trump speaks with Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta (left) on the South Lawn of the White House on Friday, July 12, 2019. Earlier, Secretary Acosta submitted his resignation, the result of fallout from his involvement in a previous plea deal for Jeffrey Epstein more than a decade ago.

The leniency of the jail time Mr. Epstein served for pleading guilty to state charges, which ended up being 13 months instead of the planned-for 18, and which included large portions of time when he was allowed to leave for work release, surprised his office, Mr. Acosta said. He also acknowledged that “we expect a lot more transparency today. It’s very obvious that the victims feel that this was not a sufficient outcome.” 

Yet the deal, struck without the victims’ knowledge, had highly unusual circumstances at the time, and showed “great power [was] being brought to bear” by Mr. Epstein and his team of lawyers, says Kenneth White, a former assistant U.S. attorney for the Central District of California, and an expert on white-collar crime prosecutions.

Given the exposure of Catholic Church and other high-level sexual abuse, and the #MeToo movement that has revealed sexual assaults by a wide range of powerful men in Hollywood and beyond, “there is a difference in the culture now and then with respect to rich people and sexual abuse. There’s less tolerance of it,” Mr. White adds. “The same power that lets you off easy, when the culture changes, can bring the focus back on you in a way that sinks you.”

An uphill battle 

That’s not to say there isn’t still an uphill battle often for victims of sex trafficking, particularly if their abusers have wealth and social power. 

“When someone is really well connected, I think there genuinely is a huge fear that whatever [victims who come forward] try to do in life, they are then going to be blacklisted … because the influence is too great. ... It’s hard not to think the cards are stacked against you, and this guy is too powerful,” says Meredith Dank, a research professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. “It takes those people who continue trying to push that forward to inspire other people to do the same.”

Some of those initial victims in Florida have made progress in a federal lawsuit, where the judge earlier this year agreed the non-prosecution deal for Mr. Epstein violated the Crime Victims’ Rights Act because the victims were not consulted. That judge is currently considering whether the deal should be tossed out, which would allow for a federal prosecution in Florida to take place. 

In court on Monday, Mr. Epstein’s lead attorney, Reid Weingarten, likened the new charges to a “do-over” of the old case. “There was a belief that there was a global agreement” to resolve all potential federal charges against Mr. Epstein, Mr. Weingarten said, referring to the time the agreement was made.  

Greater prosecution, but of whom? 

A growing awareness of sex trafficking has led to some strong state and federal prosecutions of such crimes in recent years. 

Yet it’s also worth considering the degree to which sex trafficking convictions may pattern broader disparate outcomes depending on the race and socioeconomic level of the accused, Professor Dank says.

Among the 283 people charged with sex trafficking, peonage, slavery, or forced labor in U.S. district courts in 2015, 60 percent were black, 18 percent were Hispanic, and 20 percent where white, according to a report last year from the Bureau of Justice Statistics at the U.S. Department of Justice.

During a study including interviews in 2014 with men in prison for sex trafficking, some of the men of color drew a parallel to a “war-on-drugs kind of attack, where they are focused on people of color, particularly with an issue that affects people of all races and backgrounds,” and they believed more white men should be also identified and convicted for such crimes, says Professor Dank.

Those who have fewer resources often ended up taking plea deals and getting much harsher punishments than those who can hire expensive defense attorneys, Professor Dank notes. 

But it’s also important to keep in mind that sexual predators who have status in their community are “often thinking of how they are going to perpetrate crimes and prevent a victim from reporting,” so they target people who they know might have more difficulty getting jurors to see them as credible witnesses, says Jennifer G. Long, chief executive officer of AEquitas: The Prosecutors’ Resource on Violence Against Women. 

The prosecutor’s job is to receive reports of crime without bias based on the status of the victim or the accused, Ms. Long says, and to do thorough investigations that “unmask perpetrators and find other victims.” They also need to help juries understand that someone can have a positive persona and reputation of good works in the community and still be a victimizer.

Some change, but how much?

Federal prosecutors in the Eastern District of New York did succeed recently in gaining a sex trafficking conviction against Keith Raniere, a white man who had amassed some wealth through a cult-like organization he operated in the Albany area. It had attracted some wealthy and celebrity women as adherents.

But other examples suggest not enough has yet changed, some observers say. Just this month, two New Jersey judges were reprimanded for disregarding the severity of sexual assault crimes in order to hand out lighter sentences to defendants of means, says Michele Dauber, a sociologist and law professor at Stanford University.

In 2018, Professor Dauber led a recall effort of Santa Clara County Judge Aaron Persky, who gave a Stanford swimmer, Brock Turner, a light sentence after he committed a serious sexual assault. A solid majority of county voters agreed to remove him from the bench.  

“The outcry in the Epstein case and the New Jersey cases, and other cases across the country, make it clear that when voters are given the opportunity to weigh in on the issue of sexual violence, they strongly want to remove perpetrators and enablers from office,” says Professor Dauber, who this year launched the Enough is Enough Voter Project, a political action committee aiming to unseat public officials who face credible allegations of committing or enabling sexual misconduct. “Women, younger people, people of color, in particular, do not support public officials who make exceptions for privileged sex offenders. It’s not an issue of right or left. It’s an issue of right or wrong.”

Yet prosecutors often use discretion about which cases to pursue based on their assessment of how realistic it will be to gain a conviction. 

Part of Secretary Acosta’s explanation Wednesday for agreeing to the deal was that “victims were hesitant. ... Today’s world treats victims very, very differently. Today’s world doesn’t allow some of the victim-shaming that would have taken place at trial 12 years ago.” 

That explanation did not satisfy critics of the deal, and some of his statements were being directly refuted in the press by Thursday.  “It really struck me as a poor excuse, to blame the culture,” says Scott Berkowitz, president of RAINN, a national anti-sexual violence organization. It’s true that attitudes toward women who report sexual assault have improved, he says, but Mr. Epstein was accused of abusing minors, and “the country has long been firmly opposed to sexual abuse of children.” 

The new prosecution of Mr. Epstein doesn’t bring a guarantee, but does bring hope, Mr. Berkowitz says, that “if he’s convicted, the punishment is going to come a lot closer to fitting the crime.”

For help or concerns about a crime please contact the National Human Trafficking Resource Center’s toll-free hotline at 1-888-373-7888, or the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-4673 

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