Updated at 2:30 p.m. ET
Jeffrey Epstein is dead, but that doesn't mean his accusers have been silenced.
On Tuesday, nearly three weeks after the wealthy financier and alleged sex trafficker took his own life in jail, a host of women and their attorneys took the stand to tell their stories. Judge Richard Berman decided last week that Epstein's death — and prosecutors' subsequent proposal to drop the charges — should not close the door on those who wish to speak about the case.
"The Court believes that where, as here, a defendant has died before any judgment has been entered against him, the public may still have an informational interest in the process by which the prosecutor seeks dismissal of an indictment," Berman wrote.
About 20 women, many of whom chose to remain anonymous, gave their accounts Tuesday, along with prosecutors and defense attorneys, in a courtroom without cameras present. Afterward, two accusers stood before reporters at a news conference led mostly by their attorney, Gloria Allred.
"All I'm going to say is today is a day of power and strength," said one accuser, Teala Davies, in a brief statement before ceding the microphone to Allred.
"It was wonderful, as far as they were concerned, to have this opportunity to be heard," Allred said, commenting on how rare Tuesday's hearing was. "I just received an invitation from the court last week, and I was just amazed because I've never received that in all my years of practice."
Despite Epstein's absence, the hearing marks a milestone in the long, sordid saga surrounding the controversial financier. Long suspected of running a sex trafficking ring that targeted young girls in particular, Epstein managed to elude his accusers' attempts to bring him to justice — and largely to keep their stories quiet.
Most notably, his first major trial ended in 2008 with a lenient federal plea deal that allowed Epstein to plead guilty to a state charge of soliciting prostitution from a teenager and serve about a year in jail. He was allowed to leave the jail frequently during his time in custody; what's more, his plea deal also sealed the agreement and largely hid it from his accusers and the public alike.
It was not until last year's investigation by the Miami Herald shed light on details of the deal that outrage over Epstein escalated again. That anger also led to the resignation of the man who had negotiated the agreement, Alexander Acosta. Acosta had been a U.S. attorney at the time and stepped down as labor secretary last month.
A separate lawsuit packed with revealing testimony about the operation Epstein and his associate Ghislaine Maxwell allegedly ran with the help of others was left under seal for years, until a judge released a trove of documents related to the case. Those thousands of pages of documents, released just a day before Epstein's death, contained claims that he and Maxwell recruited and used teenage girls for sex, often forcing them to have sex with other prominent men connected with Epstein.
When Epstein died, many of his accusers feared they had once again been robbed of the chance to speak out in court.
"I cannot say that I am pleased he committed suicide, but I am at peace knowing that he will not be able to hurt anyone else," one of Epstein's alleged victims wrote in a letter signed "Jane Doe" and posted to Twitter by her lawyer, Lisa Bloom. "However, a sad truth remains: I, along with other women, will never have an answer as to why; I will never have an apology for all the wrong doing; and, most importantly, Epstein will not be justly sentenced for his crimes."
"In choosing death," the woman added, "Epstein denied everyone justice."
Tuesday's hearing might mark the end of the case against Epstein himself should Berman approve prosecutors' request to dismiss the indictment, but other legal battles are far from over. Several of Epstein's accusers have filed significant lawsuits against his estate, and prosecutors have vowed to pursue justice against his associates.
The message that authorities are far from finished was a prevailing theme, according to NPR's Cat Schuknecht, who was in the courtroom Tuesday. "My takeaway," she says, "is that even if the case is dismissed, which is what they're asking for, that they are reassuring everyone that investigations will be ongoing."
That's in accordance with a pledge earlier this month by the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York.
"To those brave young women who have already come forward and to the many others who have yet to do so, let me reiterate that we remain committed to standing for you," the office said in a statement, "and our investigation of the conduct charged in the Indictment — which included a conspiracy count — remains ongoing."
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