Jeffrey Epstein complainants speak at hearing as judge weighs prosecution request
Judge says it's important women be heard at this stage in process
One by one, 16 of Jeffrey Epstein's accusers stood before a judge and poured out their anger toward the financier Tuesday, taking advantage of an extraordinary opportunity to be heard in court after his jailhouse suicide denied them the chance to testify against him at his sex-trafficking trial.
"He robbed me of my dreams, of my chance to pursue a career I adored," said Jennifer Araoz, who has accused Epstein of raping her in his New York mansion when she was a 15-year-old aspiring actress.
"The fact I will never have a chance to face my predator in court eats away at me," she added. "They let this man kill himself and kill the chance for justice for so many others."
The hearing was convened by U.S. District Judge Richard Berman, who presided over the case after federal prosecutors had Epstein arrested July 6 on arrival at a New Jersey airport from Paris.
The question before the judge was whether to throw out the indictment because of the defendant's death, usually a pro forma step undertaken without a hearing. But the judge offered Epstein's accusers their say in court.
Repeatedly, the women described themselves as survivors and said they hoped coming forward publicly would encourage other women to heal. They lashed out at Epstein for his alleged crimes. His death in a jail cell Aug. 10 has been ruled a suicide.
"I feel very angry and sad that justice has never been served in this case," said Courtney Wild, who has said she was sexually abused by Epstein in Florida at 14.
Virginia Roberts Giuffre, who has said she was a 15-year-old working at President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago club when she was recruited to perform sex acts on Epstein, said: "My hopes were quickly dashed and my dreams were stolen."
Berman called Epstein's death "a rather stunning turn of events" but said it was important the women be heard at this stage in the process.
The judge set the hearing after prosecutors asked that he scrap charges against Epstein since the defendant is dead.
Cause of death questioned
Before he allowed others to speak, Berman blasted a published report that criticized allowing the women to speak at the public hearing and noted requests by prosecutors to drop charges were routinely handled without a hearing.
He said the article in a legal publication suggested the hearing was introducing drama into the court process.
"What little drama might happen today, I don't think, would be very significant," Berman said. "Public hearings ... promote transparency, and provide the court with insights and information that the court might otherwise not be aware of."
High-profile attorney Gloria Allred said after the hearing she appreciated the "unique opportunity" Berman gave some of the clients she represents. Others were not able to attend on short notice, she said.
During the hearing, lawyer Brad Edwards, who represents Wild and other women who say they were sexually abused by Epstein, said, "I have in the courtroom today 15 victims I represent and have represented over the years. There are at least 20 more who didn't make this hearing today."
One of Epstein's lawyers, Martin Weinberg, challenged the coroner's finding on cause of death, saying an expert hired by the defence determined that broken bones in his neck were "more consistent with pressure ... with homicide" than suicide.
"Find out what happened to our client," the lawyer told the judge. "We're quite angry."
When a prosecutor said the manner of Epstein's death was "completely irrelevant to the purpose of today's proceeding," the judge responded: "Well, I don't know. ... I think it's fair game for defence counsel to raise its concerns."
But the judge took no immediate action on the request, and prosecutors noted that a grand jury is already investigating the death.
Edwards also said Epstein's "untimely death" was "curious."
Wide range of emotions
During the 2½-hour proceeding, the women sometimes clutched one another to lend support. Most remained composed, but several cried as they described falling into Epstein's web. His suicide left some of them angry, others sad. One said she was relieved that he was gone and could abuse no others.
But the end is here, and here I stand, feeling more powerful than he will ever be- Teala Davies
Some women described their shame and embarrassment, saying Epstein manipulated them, dangling his wealth and power and connection to celebrities and political figures, while seizing on their vulnerabilities.
One woman who remained anonymous said Epstein when she was 15 flew her to a ranch where she was sexually molested for many hours while he kept insisting he was helping her to grow. She said he abused her in a position where she would see his framed pictures of himself on a dresser, smiling with celebrities.
Teala Davies, taking deep breaths to steady her voice, said she was 17 when she was victimized. She said she thought Epstein was the most powerful person in the world.
"But the end is here, and here I stand, feeling more powerful than he will ever be," she said.
Since the hearing was scheduled, it was revealed Epstein signed a will just two days before his suicide, putting over $577 million US in assets into a trust fund. The will, filed in the Virgin Islands where Epstein maintained a residence, was expected to make it more difficult for dozens of complainants to collect damages.
Epstein had pleaded not guilty to sex-trafficking charges and was held without bail, accused of sexually abusing women in the early 2000s at mansions in New York City and Florida.
Since his death, an angry U.S. Attorney General William Barr has vowed that anyone who aided Epstein in sex trafficking will be pursued in a continuing investigation.
He also removed the acting director of the Bureau of Prisons from his position, placed two guards who were supposed to be watching Epstein the morning he died on administrative leave and temporarily reassigned the warden to the Metropolitan Correctional Center.
Barr has said officials had uncovered "serious irregularities" and was angry that staff members at the federal lockup had failed to "adequately secure this prisoner."
At the time of his death, Epstein was preparing through his lawyers to argue in court papers due in September that he could not be prosecuted because he signed a no-prosecution deal with prosecutors a dozen years ago in Florida. Prosecutors in New York said that deal did not prevent the new charges. Epstein signed it before he pleaded guilty to Florida state charges in 2008, admitting sexual relations with teenage girls under the age of consent.
The suicide happened despite a warning in late July when Epstein was found on the floor of his cell with bruises to his neck. After Epstein died, Berman asked the jail's warden for answers about that episode, saying it had never been "definitively explained."
Epstein spent a few days under suicide watch, but was transferred back to a cell in a Special Housing Unit where he had a cellmate. Eventually, though, the cellmate was taken out and he was left alone.
Trump, former president Bill Clinton and Britain's Prince Andrew have all distanced themselves from Epstein after being seen socializing with him in the 1990s and early 2000s.
With files from Reuters