Editor’s Note: In this weekly column “Cross-exam,” Elie Honig, a CNN legal analyst and former federal and state prosecutor, 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.
When Attorney General William Barr said he was “appalled” and “angry” after Jeffrey Epstein’s apparent suicide at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan, you’d almost have thought Barr himself bore no responsibility. He spoke of “serious irregularities” and “demanded” an investigation – as if he were some outside observer incapable of simply ordering an investigation himself.
Listening to him pour fire and brimstone on the rank-and-file who run the jail, you almost have to wonder: Has Barr taken a look at his org chart recently? Because the Metropolitan Correctional Center is part of the Bureau of Prisons, which is part of the Justice Department, which Barr runs.
He is responsible for all of it. This happened in Barr’s house. He doesn’t get to stand outside, wag his finger, roll the blame downhill and call it a day.
To be sure, the MCC certainly seems to have failed and must be held accountable. Trump-era budget cuts created staffing shortages that the MCC has tried to resolve with lots of overtime pay and “augmentation” – a practice that allows prison cooks and teachers to temporarily fill in for trained corrections officers. Barr already has temporarily ordered the reassignment of the MCC warden and placed two guards on administrative leave – a necessary but insufficient first step.
But ultimately Barr is the one who owes the American public – and most importantly, Epstein’s victims – answers to these questions:
Why was Epstein, who was found in his jail cell in late July with injuries that seemed to indicate a suicide attempt, taken off suicide watch after less than a week? What was the plan to monitor Epstein after his removal from suicide watch, and was that plan followed? (Reportedly Epstein was not properly monitored on the night of his death).
What steps did Barr himself take (or could he have taken) to ensure the safety of Epstein, who was arguably among the highest profile and highest priority inmates in the entire Bureau of Prisons?
All of these questions should be entirely answerable, if Barr is truly committed to getting at the truth. During my eight years as an Assistant United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, I spent countless days inside the MCC, usually meeting in a private, secure room with inmates who had been charged and were seeking to cooperate.
I know firsthand: the MCC is a brutal, unforgiving place. It is hot, cramped, loud, and simply put, scary.
But rough as it is, the MCC is no wild west. It is one of the most tightly regulated and monitored buildings on the planet. The inside of the building is surprisingly small. Staff members and surveillance cameras are everywhere. Inmates are counted several times each day. Every opening of every door is controlled by remote lock, and only one door in any given area can be opened at a time. And the MCC is a bureaucratic monolith. Every visitor, every prisoner movement, every count, every item entering or exiting, is logged in some manner. The answers are all there.
Epstein is gone. His victims will never get the chance to confront him in open court. That is the fault of the Justice Department and Barr himself. Now it is Barr’s duty to deliver not only straight answers but also meaningful accountability.
Now, your questions
Phillip (Florida): Now that Jeffrey Epstein is dead, what is likely to happen to this case?
There is no way in our justice system to prosecute a person after his death. The criminal case against Epstein is over.
But the larger criminal case continues. The Epstein indictment makes clear that he did not act alone in running what prosecutors allege was a sprawling international sex-trafficking ring. The indictment refers to three co-conspirators, and the Southern District of New York could identify others as the evidence develops.
In a statement shortly after Epstein’s death, the SDNY specifically noted that “our investigation of the conduct charged in the indictment – which included a conspiracy count – remains ongoing.”
This is significant because a conspiracy, by definition, involves more than one person. Further, the FBI this week raided Epstein’s private island in the Virgin Islands, seeking to gather more evidence. Barr (to his credit) and the SDNY both have signaled clearly: this isn’t over, and anyone who helped Epstein should expect us to come knocking.
Several victims also have brought civil cases seeking monetary damages against Epstein. These cases do not go away with his death. Instead, the civil cases will be against Epstein’s estate, which reportedly is worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Epstein’s victims will still have opportunities to be heard and hopefully to find some justice.
William (Texas): President Trump has called for stronger “red flag” laws, but didn’t he reverse an Obama-era executive order limiting gun sales to people with mental illness?
Yes. In February 2017, Trump’s first full month in office, he revoked an Obama-era regulation that flagged in the national background check database people receiving Social Security benefits for mental disability and people whose benefits were sent to and administered by third parties due to mental incapacity. The National Rifle Association “applauded” Trump’s revocation of the regulation, which would have added approximately 75,000 names to the database.
It is possible that Trump’s views on keeping guns out of the hands of mentally ill people have evolved since early 2017. If so, and if he is truly committed to keeping firearms away from “mentally disturbed individuals who may commit acts of violence,” then he could promote that goal by reinstating the regulation. But that would require Trump to (1) admit that the Obama-era regulation was good policy, and (2) defy the NRA. Don’t count on it.
Mark (Massachusetts): ICE has raided multiple businesses recently and arrested many undocumented persons. Could the business owners be prosecuted for employing persons without permission to work in the United States?
ICE and the Justice Department recently trumpeted massive immigration sweeps, including arrests of over 680 undocumented workers at food processing plants in Mississippi. The US Attorney for the Southern District of Mississippi boasted about what he “believed to be the largest single-state immigration enforcement operation in our nation’s history.”
Here’s a follow-up question I’d ask the self-proclaimed, record-breaking US Attorney: You went after the workers – now how about the bosses who profited off their labor?
This “roundup” feels to me like cheap political pandering and headline chasing. It is a sub-optimal use of limited Justice Department resources to round up hundreds of workers on non-violent crimes who pose no known danger to their communities. And if prosecutors truly wanted to address the scourge of employment of undocumented workers, they can and should go after the profiteers first.
Three more questions to watch:
1. What new information will we learn from the investigations by the Justice Department and the Office of the Inspector General about Epstein’s death in prison and from Epstein’s autopsy?
2. Will public demand for new gun legislation remain high enough to spur Congress to take legislative action?
3. Now that a majority of House Democrats favor opening an impeachment inquiry and Rep. Jerry Nadler has declared that the House is in “formal impeachment proceedings,” will more House members announce support for impeachment?