Editor’s Note: Page Pate is a criminal defense and constitutional lawyer based in Atlanta. He is a former adjunct professor of law at the University of Georgia, a founding member of the Georgia Innocence Project, a former board member of the Federal Defender Program in Atlanta and the former chairman of the criminal law section of the Atlanta Bar Association. Follow him on Twitter @pagepate. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his. Read more opinion articles at CNN. The piece has been updated with a response from the Bureau of Prisons.
For such a high-profile case involving a wealthy financier with a wide network of powerful friends, the circumstances of Jeffrey Epstein’s suicide at a corrections center in Manhattan raise serious questions.
It was only three weeks ago that Epstein, who pleaded not guilty to sex trafficking charges, was found in his jail cell with marks on his neck. While it was unclear whether the injuries were the result of self-harm or assault, the incident should have convinced prison officials to remain on high alert, especially given the nature of the charges against Epstein.
Sources told CNN, Epstein was initially placed on suicide watch after he sustained the neck injuries on July 23, but was taken off and cleared by the end of the month to return to the Special Housing Unit (SHU), a place where inmates are sent when they get into trouble or need to be isolated from the general population.
Why was Epstein taken off suicide watch so soon? Why was he not monitored more closely in the SHU where he was held? And given the nature of the charges against him and the other powerful, high profile individuals whose names have been linked to his case, was this all a mistake or something more nefarious?
I have represented dozens of people charged with sexual exploitation and similar crimes in federal court. For defendants facing these charges, it is common for suicide to be a major factor when a judge is considering the conditions of pretrial release or detention. Former Deputy Attorney General and long-time federal prosecutor Rod Rosenstein tweeted on Saturday, “Detained pedophiles require special attention.”
The SHU is not a nice place to be. Inmates are typically isolated from the general inmate population and locked in their cells for up to 23 hours a day with little contact with family, friends, or the outside world. It is an extremely difficult place to serve time, especially if the inmate is already thought to be suicidal. In fact, the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) considers inmates held in the SHU to potentially be at a greater risk of suicide than the general population.
Once an inmate is on suicide watch, as Epstein was, he or she should not be returned to SHU until the risk of suicide has passed. (In the BOP’s words, when “the crisis is over.”) This policy is directed towards inmates who are placed in the SHU for disciplinary reasons, but it would also seem to apply to an inmate like Epstein who may have been in the SHU to keep him protected from other inmates.
It appears the crisis wasn’t over.
Having dealt with BOP for many years, I believe Epstein’s suicide could have been prevented had prison officials followed the policies and protocols in place for at-risk inmates.
But I don’t think that means that the prison guards or staff intentionally looked the other way while Epstein killed himself. In my practice, I have often been frustrated by the incompetence of certain BOP correctional officers and management. While it is possible something more nefarious was at play, I think it is much more likely that Epstein’s suicide was the result of negligence and not some grand conspiracy. CNN reached out to the BOP for comment, but they declined to comment beyond a statement from Attorney General William Barr.
With Epstein’s death, the pending criminal case against him will be dismissed. But several investigations continue. The FBI is looking into the circumstances of Epstein’s death, and Attorney General William Barr issued a statement saying a special inquiry would be opened. The US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, which brought the charges against Epstein, also promised to continue the sex trafficking conspiracy investigation.
Even before hundreds of pages of court documents from a 2015 defamation case were unsealed on Friday, many of Epstein’s accusers named high-profile individuals as complicit.
Although none of these other individuals were charged, they remain potential targets if the investigation uncovers sufficient evidence to corroborate some of the allegations contained in the recently released court documents.
Epstein decided not to take his chances with a jury. Perhaps the thought of a lifetime behind bars was simply too much for a man accustomed to private islands and a ridiculously lavish lifestyle. Perhaps he was overcome with guilt and remorse and decided that he didn’t deserve to live.
Whatever the reason for Epstein’s death, the investigation lives on.