Editor’s Note: In this weekly column “Cross-exam,” Elie Honig, a former federal and state prosecutor and CNN legal analyst, gives his take on the latest legal news and answers questions from readers. Post your questions below. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN. Watch Honig answer reader questions on “CNN Newsroom” at 5:40 p.m. ET Sundays.
Jeffrey Epstein dodged justice the first time he faced criminal charges for trafficking and molesting children, exploiting a combination of wealth, influence, vile attack-the-victim tactics and an incompetent prosecutor, then-US Attorney for the Southern District of Florida and current US Department of Labor Secretary Alex Acosta. This time, however, Epstein is likely cooked. He faces charges likely to keep him behind bars for the rest of his life. The famously aggressive and independent Southern District of New York (where I worked for eight-plus years) has indicted him on charges of running a sex trafficking ring in which he allegedly sexually abused dozens of girls. Neither SDNY nor a public spotlight will permit a hush-hush sweetheart deal like Epstein got in Florida. The big question is, as the SDNY takes down Epstein, who else will go with him?
When he first faced sex trafficking charges in Florida in 2007, Epstein skated. His powerhouse team of attorneys somehow worked with Acosta to craft an agreement that was staggeringly unjust. Epstein faced decades behind bars but Acosta let him go with a plea to two minor state-level charges (for which he was sentenced to 13 months behind bars but served most of it on work release). The deal also inexplicably immunized Epstein’s co-conspirators. In 14-plus years as a prosecutor, I’ve never even heard of the concept of giving a free pass to a defendant’s co-conspirators. Worse, as a federal judge ruled recently, Acosta violated the rights of Epstein’s victims by entering into the sweetheart plea deal without notifying them first, as the law requires.
The New York indictment was unsealed Monday and details allegations that between 2002 and 2005, Epstein ran a trafficking outfit in which he paid hundreds of dollars to girls as young as 14 to have sex with him at his homes in New York and Florida and worked with employees and associates who would lure these girls there and paid some of them to recruit others for similar abuse. CNN has reached out to Epstein’s lawyer for comment. In a press release, the US Attorney’s office said, “Epstein created a vast network of underage victims for him to sexually exploit, often on a daily basis.”
Things now look bleak for Epstein. Simply being charged by the SDNY is, in itself, a defendant’s nightmare. According to Justice Department data, the conviction rate on federal charges is typically over 90%, and the conviction rate in federal human trafficking cases is even a tick higher than that. Much of the case likely will center on testimony from Epstein’s victims. While Epstein’s attorneys in Florida cowed Acosta in part through a vicious campaign to attack the victims, the SDNY needs to stand firm. I’ve done sex trafficking cases, including a trial based largely on the testimony of victims. In my experience, victims typically have no reason to lie, and juries can and will believe victims, particularly if their voices are supported by other evidence. Knowing the SDNY, they’ve likely got other corroborating evidence – perhaps phone records, financial documents, e-mails or texts or travel records – to back up the victims.
Epstein has three choices now. First, he can go to trial; the vast majority of defendants who go to trial in federal court get convicted, which almost certainly would send the 66 year-old Epstein to jail for the rest of his life. And a trial will certainly cause what prosecutors call “collateral damage”: other wrongdoers – Epstein’s co-conspirators and enablers in the alleged sex trafficking ring – will be named publicly, and the proof of their conduct will come out.
Second, Epstein can plead guilty without cooperation. But it seems unlikely that the SDNY will give Epstein anything remotely approaching the absurdly soft deal he got in Florida. Given the severity of the charges, I’d be surprised if SDNY prosecutors let Epstein plead to anything less than a decade behind bars, without his cooperation.
Third, Epstein can cooperate. This is Epstein’s best chance to reduce his sentence significantly. In the SDNY, however, cooperation is all-or-nothing: a cooperator must tell prosecutors everything he knows about his own conduct and the conduct of others, including on the charged crimes and everything else. When I was with SDNY, I had cooperators originally charged with drug offenses who ended up providing information about murders. Cooperators cannot pick and choose and cannot provide information selectively. That’s simply how it works in the SDNY. (Just ask Michael Cohen, who received a blistering sentencing letter from the SDNY because he was willing to answer some, but not all, of their questions). So if Epstein does cooperate, he will have to name names. It remains to be seen whether the SDNY even wants to cooperate with Epstein, given his grotesque conduct.
We do not know if Epstein will cooperate, but even if he does not, others will very likely be implicated. It seems clear from the indictment that others helped Epstein run his alleged sex trafficking operation and otherwise participated in it. At least some of those names will come out in court proceedings, public filings, potentially trial and perhaps additional indictments. And it’s worth noting that the Epstein case is being handled by the SDNY’s Public Corruption Unit – in my experience, human trafficking cases usually are handled elsewhere in the office – which strongly suggests that public officials could be under a microscope here. Anybody who helped Epstein in any way needs to get a lawyer and get scared.
Now, your questions: