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Opinion | Michael A. Cohen

Epstein case highlights America’s two justice systems

US Attorney for the Southern District of New York Geoffrey Berman announces charges against Jeffrey Epstein on July 8 in New York City.Stephanie Keith/Getty Images/Getty Images

This weekend, in what one can only hope is belated justice for a serial pedophile, multi-millionaire and friend to the well-connected, Jeffrey Epstein was arrested in New York City on charges of sex trafficking. According to a federal indictment, Epstein brought dozens of young girls to his 21,000-square foot mansion on the Upper East Side and his compound in Palm Beach, Fla., and engaged in sex acts in exchange for hundreds of dollars in cash. Epstein used these same girls to recruit other girls for him to abuse.

Social media has been rife for days with speculation about others who might be implicated in Epstein’s crimes, including former president Bill Clinton, who flew on Epstein’s private jet more than two dozen times between 2001 and 2003, and President Trump, who has called Epstein a “terrific guy” and spoke of his predilection for “beautiful women . . . on the younger side.”


But the real story here is not what we don’t know, but what was clearly visible — and the fact that Epstein was able to avoid justice for so many years.

After all, Epstein’s crimes and reputation are not secrets. In 2007, police in Palm Beach uncovered evidence that Epstein had coerced and assaulted dozens of girls. The police had witnesses to his crimes and naked photos of underage girls. The FBI and the US Attorney’s office identified 36 of Epstein’s victims. Last Fall, the Miami Herald, in a masterful expose, tracked down 80 women who reported being sexually assaulted by Epstein.

A person of lesser means charged with such crimes would almost certainly be sitting in jail right now for the rest of his life.

Instead, Epstein’s coterie of private investigators and high-priced lawyers, which included former Whitewater prosecutor Kenneth Starr and Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz, spent months compiling dossiers on his alleged victims that included a focus on their sexual histories and drug use. They targeted police and local prosecutors, which includedpicking through the trash of Palm Beach’s police chief in an effort to discredit him.


Even though Florida prosecutors had assembled a 53-page indictment of Epstein his lawyers negotiated a sweetheart deal to end all sweetheart deals. Epstein was offered a federal non-prosecution agreement that allowed him to just plead guilty to state charges, immunized him from federal charges, and pulled the plug on an ongoing FBI investigation of his crimes — and those close to him.

As the Herald revealed prosecutors communicated with Epstein’s defense team using private e-mails and referenced discussions that they preferred to have on the phone or in person so as to avoid a paper trail. This, said the paper, allowed Epstein’s lawyers to dictate the terms of each deal that they drew up.”

Epstein’s punishment: He served just over a year in a private wing of the Palm Beach County jail, where he was allowed leave six times a week, for 12 hours a day, to work.

Rather than be held accountable for grievously heinous behavior Epstein was protected, over and over again, by both his lawyers and prosecutors.

But what’s clear is that they treated him in a manner that few people charged with a crime would ever find familiar.

The federal prosecutor who negotiated Epstein’s slap on the wrist was Alex Acosta, who is today US labor secterary. The deal is so egregious that a federal judge ruled that Acosta and federal prosecutors had broken the law by failing to inform Epstein’s victims of the plea deal.


Acosta has since defended the prosecution by noting that Epstein was required to register as a sex offender.

Lots of good that has done. When police searched Epstein’s home they seized hundreds of “sexually suggestive” pictures of naked young women and CDs locked in a safe with labels like “Girl pics nude.”

These are hardly the actions of a man chastened by his past behavior or fearful of being held accountable.

But why should he? Epstein used his vast wealth to avoid justice once before. Surely, he assumed, he could do it again. Look at the president. He’s been credibly accused by two dozen women of sexual assault and yet he has an entire apparatus of defenders and enablers happy to shield him from justice or accountability. Look at Acosta: he got a promotion after basically letting a dangerous pedophile more or less walk free.

That Epstein’s victims have had to wait so many years for justice to be done — and that Epstein could continue to engage in predatory behavior — is yet one more disturbing reminder that we have two justice systems in America. One for the rich and well-connected, who can game the system, throw money at their problems, walk away unscathed, and never have to say they’re sorry, and one for the rest of us.


Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.