NEW YORK (AP) — A federal judge in New York called Jeffrey Epstein’s suicide a “rather stunning turn of events” Tuesday as he opened a court hearing at which women were scheduled to speak about their accusations that the wealthy financier sexually assaulted them.
The hearing was scheduled last week by U.S. District Judge Richard Berman, who presided over the case prosecutors brought against Epstein after the 66-year-old was arrested July 6 after he arrived at a New Jersey airport from Paris.
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“The news on Aug. 10 that Jeffrey Epstein had been found dead in his cell … was certainly shocking,” Berman said.
The judge added: “It is a rather stunning turn of events.”
A New York City coroner has classified the death a suicide. He died Aug. 10.
The judge set the hearing after prosecutors asked that he scrap charges against Epstein since the defendant is dead. Berman said he would give prosecutors, Epstein lawyers and any victims a chance to speak.
Before he allowed others to speak, Berman blasted a published report that criticized the public hearing and noted that requests by prosecutors to drop charges were routinely handled without a hearing.
He said the article in a legal publication suggested the hearing was introducing drama into the court process.
“What little drama might happen today, I don’t think, would be very significant,” Berman said. “Public hearings … promote transparency and provide the court with insights and information that the court might otherwise not be aware of.”
Since the hearing was scheduled, it was revealed that Epstein signed a will just two days before his suicide putting over $577 million in assets into a trust fund. The will, filed in the Virgin Islands where Epstein maintained a residence, was expected to make it more difficult for dozens of accusers to collect damages.
Epstein had pleaded not guilty to sex trafficking charges and was held without bail, accused of sexually abusing women in the early 2000s at mansions in Manhattan and Florida.
Since his death, an angry Attorney General William Barr has vowed that anyone who aided Epstein in sex trafficking will be pursued in a continuing investigation.
He also removed the acting director of the Bureau of Prisons from his position, placed two guards who were supposed to be watching Epstein the morning he died on administrative leave, and temporarily reassigned the warden to the Metropolitan Correctional Center.
Barr has said officials had uncovered “serious irregularities” and was angry that staff members at the federal lockup had failed to “adequately secure this prisoner.”
At the time of his death, Epstein was preparing though his lawyers to argue in court papers that he could not be prosecuted because he signed a no-prosecution deal with prosecutors a dozen years ago in Florida. Prosecutors in New York said that deal did not prevent the new charges. Epstein signed it before he pleaded guilty to Florida state charges in 2008, in a case involving allegations that he had sexual contact with several underage girls.
The suicide happened despite a warning in late July when Epstein was found on the floor of his cell with bruises to his neck. After Epstein died, Berman asked the jail’s warden for answers about that episode, saying it had never been “definitively explained.”
Epstein spent a few days under suicide watch but then was transferred back to a cell in a Special Housing Unit where he had a cellmate. Eventually, though, the cellmate was taken out and he was left alone.