Sunday, 13 Jun 2021

Jail Guards Charged in Epstein Suicide Could Avoid Prosecution

Two jail guards charged with ignoring their duties the night Jeffrey Epstein killed himself and then lying about it have reached an agreement that could end the criminal case against them, federal prosecutors said in a court filing on Friday.

The guards, Michael Thomas and Tova Noel, had been accused of browsing the internet and napping rather than checking on Mr. Epstein every half-hour as they were supposed to the night before he was found dead in his cell at a federal jail in Manhattan. Mr. Epstein, a wealthy financier, was awaiting trial on sex trafficking charges when he hanged himself.

After failing to do their jobs, prosecutors said, Mr. Thomas and Ms. Noel falsified official logs to indicate that they had made their required rounds when they had actually been checking sports news, shopping for furniture online and dozing off.

Both guards had pleaded not guilty to making false records and conspiracy to defraud the United States. As part of what are known as deferred prosecution agreements, they admitted that they had “willfully and knowingly completed materially false” records of their activities.

The federal judge overseeing the case must still approve the agreements, which typically spare defendants from criminal convictions so long as their live up to their commitments.

In addition to 100 hours of community service apiece, Mr. Thomas and Ms. Noel agreed to assist Justice Department investigators who are examining the circumstances surrounding Mr. Epstein’s death, which William P. Barr, the U.S. attorney general at the time, said resulted from “a perfect storm of screw-ups.”

A spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan, which is prosecuting the case, declined to comment on the agreements.

Mr. Epstein, 66, had been in jail for more than a month when he was found dead in his cell early on Aug. 10, 2019. Already a convicted sex offender, he had pleaded not guilty to the latest charges. If convicted, he faced up to 45 years in prison.

The jail where Mr. Epstein killed himself, the Metropolitan Correctional Center, has long been plagued by staff shortages and other problems. Lawyers for Mr. Thomas and Ms. Noel had suggested that their clients were being made scapegoats for larger problems there and in the federal prison system more broadly.

Both guards, their lawyers noted, had worked several overtime shifts the week that Mr. Epstein killed himself. In addition, he had been left alone without a cellmate on the night in question and the next morning despite another suicide attempt about three weeks earlier.

Ms. Noel’s lawyer, Jason E. Foy, said after the charges were announced that he believed there were “outside circumstances that are driving this prosecution.” Mr. Thomas’s lawyer, Montell Figgins, said that Mr. Epstein had died “because of a system that failed completely.”

On Friday, Mr. Figgins said that his client was “very happy” with the resolution of the case.

“The silver lining of this incident is to shine light on the issues in the criminal justice system and how it can be improved for everyone involved,” Mr. Figgins said. “Is society going to benefit by putting a military veteran who’s worked his whole life, who has a family to support, in jail?”

He added, “If someone wants to look at this particular situation and say the sentence in this case is too light, I would say to them, have you ever made a mistake in your job?”

Mr. Foy could not immediately be reached for comment.

The indictment charging the guards highlighted lapses in the operation of the high-security unit at the Manhattan jail. It also offered the first official narrative of the events preceding Mr. Epstein’s death.

Security cameras did not show anyone entering the cellblock where he was housed, the indictment said, suggesting that despite the conjecture and conspiracy theories swirling around him and his connections to powerful people, his death was a suicide as New York City’s chief medical examiner had ruled.

Ghislaine Maxwell, the British socialite who was Mr. Epstein’s longtime companion, is awaiting trial on charges that she contributed to his abuse of teenage girls more than two decades ago. She has pleaded not guilty and has sought several times, unsuccessfully, to be freed on bail.

Benjamin Weiser and Troy Closson contributed reporting.

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