The Ledger in recent days has included several stories about villains who prey on the most vulnerable among us.
Men, many of them middle-aged, were arrested, convicted, or sentenced to long prison terms for sexually exploiting or abusing children, mostly young girls. The cases involve actual sexual acts, soliciting sex or trafficking in child pornography.
Sadly, the heartbreaking reports of the past few days occur too frequently in the pages of this newspaper. Yet for the most part we in Polk County can be assured that the authorities who pursue, prosecute and adjudicate these cases will ensure that the guilty trolls in the lot will receive a long and fitting punishment. That may completely comfort the victims, but it does protect future potential victims.
But now the Miami Herald has reminded us that the justice system can often be two-tiered, feeding the frequent criticism that the wealthy and well connected can avoid the severe punishment that is due them, and that is visited upon those of more modest means who commit the same crimes.
The Herald, in exhaustive detail, has pried into the case of Jeffrey Epstein, a billionaire hedge fund manager from Palm Beach who a decade ago got a light penalty for an extensive sex-trafficking operation. Epstein was a player, known to consort with celebrities, captains of industry and influential politicians, including U.S. presidents. But behind that public persona, according to the Herald, he harbored a fetish for the flesh of high- and even middle-school girls.
For years Epstein reportedly procured dozens of underage girls largely from troubled homes, many of whom were subsequently paid by Epstein to recruit other girls. He brought them into his posh waterfront mansion, engaged in some type of sex act, and then paid them.
Palm Beach police investigated and believe they had compiled sufficient evidence to pursue the case. But they were thwarted by the state attorney. Local cops grew so frustrated that they turned to the FBI. Federal authorities once compiled a 53-page indictment outlining charges that, had he been convicted, would have sent Epstein to prison for life. Instead, the federal prosecutor handling the case, after negotiating with Epstein's all-star legal team, allowed Epstein to plead guilty to state charge prostitution charges. He ultimately spent 13 months in a private wing of the county jail, guarded by a private security team and permitted to go to his office for 12 hours a day.
Prosecutors also agreed to seal the case, and excused any potential co-conspirators from prosecution. The victims, the Herald reported, didn't even know what happened with their cases until Epstein was already in jail.
This week, Epstein was due in civil court regarding a lawsuit involving the allegations. An 11th-hour settlement ended the case, and spared Epstein from the testimony of his alleged victims. Still, that has not impeded lawmakers from taking an interest in the federal prosecutor who brokered the deal, Alex Acosta, who now serves as President Donald Trump's labor secretary.
Acosta was willing to go lightly on Epstein reportedly because he was willing to testify in a Wall Street securities fraud case. Ironically, both of the suspects were acquitted.
Justice in Epstein's case wasn't denied. It was buried. Some call for Acosta to be fired from his current post, but it seems unclear how that makes up for a massive failure of judgment a decade ago — decisions rendered after tense encounters with Epstein's tough and wily lawyers, including Alan Dershowitz, Ken Starr and Roy Black — or how that would convince other prosecutors to not cut similar deals of dubious worth.
One of Epstein's victims summed up the issue that should bother us all. Michelle Licata, now 30, told the Herald: "How come people who don’t have money get sent to jail ... to do their time and sit there and think about what they did wrong? He had no repercussions and doesn’t even believe he did anything wrong."
In his first inaugural address, Thomas Jefferson said among the "essential principles of our government" were "equal and exact justice to all men of whatever state or persuasion, religious or political." Epstein's case shows were still far from Jefferson's ideal. Until progress is made on that front, trust in government will continue to suffer.