Editor’s Note: Peggy Drexler is a research psychologist and the author of “Our Fathers, Ourselves: Daughters, Fathers, and the Changing American Family” and “Raising Boys Without Men.” She is at work on a book about how women are conditioned to compete with one another and what to do about it. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers. View more opinion on CNN.
In a shocking turn of events, Jeffrey Epstein was found dead by suicide in his Manhattan jail cell Saturday morning. Although he was placed on suicide watch after being found with marks on his neck more than three weeks ago, somehow, according to a source who spoke to CNN, he had been taken off watch in the past few days.
For his accusers, this lapse in attention to such a high-profile detainee may be hard to perceive as anything less than the final act of Epstein’s far-reaching power and influence.
Nor is it likely to be the last gasp in the suffering of many of the women who accused him of abuse (accounts estimate the number to be more than several dozen). Because Epstein was the only person named in the sex trafficking indictment (to which he pleaded not guilty), the criminal case against him will be dropped. As a result, none of the women who have fought bravely to tell their stories will get their day in court against Epstein.
It’s a mixed bag of emotions, to be sure. For some, avoiding the process of trial may come as a relief, as some studies have shown that testifying in sexual assault trials can be re-traumatizing. Epstein, meanwhile, was so powerful that the fear of retaliation was likely strong.
But for many others, Epstein’s apparent control over his fate, even at the very end, will feel like the ultimate shirking of accountability. So far it’s this latter response that his accusers have articulated most. Jennifer Araoz, who says she was raped by Epstein at age 15 after being recruited outside her New York City high school, said in a statement, “I am angry…. We have to live with the scars of his actions for the rest of our lives, while he will never face the consequences of the crimes he committed, the pain and trauma he caused so many people.”
What justice will look like now, however, is uncertain. The many lawyers representing the accusers have said that the next course of action will be civil suits, and Araoz is expected to file one as early as next week.
Civil rights lawyer Lisa Bloom who is representing two of Epstein’s accusers, told MSNBC Saturday morning that victims “can still bring a civil case against his estate… Of course with his death the criminal case goes away, but I want all victims to know they can still proceed against his estate.” She went on to say that she plans to call upon Epstein’s estate to freeze all of his assets and “not disperse them so his victims can get full and fair compensation for the life-long injuries he’s caused them.”
The question of how much of Epstein’s assets–which reportedly amount to over $500 million– will be available to claim is still to be determined. There are few historical precedents to a criminal defendant with this amount of wealth dying before a trial with this many plaintiffs. In the case of Enron founder Kenneth Lay, who died from a heart attack in 2006 before he received a formal judgment of conviction, his death prevented the federal government from seizing his estate’s $43.5 million in assets.
Accusers may have a better chance at justice with the continuing investigation – and with it, the possibility that any accomplices will be criminally indicted.
The one silver lining for Epstein’s accusers is something Lisa Bloom mentioned Saturday morning. With the monster gone, perhaps more women will feel empowered to come forward. “I don’t wish suicide on anyone, I don’t gloat upon on anyone’s death,” Bloom said. “But I will tell victims at least you have one less thing to worry about now, because most victims were still in fear of him.” Even with Epstein in prison, many were worried he would come after them in some way.
That won’t happen now. But the plight of these women is far from over. The focus now should be on listening to their stories, identifying any still-living perpetrators, and putting pressure on the Epstein estate to provide financial consolation wherever possible. It’s not enough to undo the damage he’s done, but it’s a very good and important start.