Even prior to his death, financier Jeffrey Epstein was a lightning rod for speculation and controversy. He was a millionaire with a litany of powerful friends, running the gamut from British Royal Prince Andrew, to renowned defense attorney Alan Dershowitz, to now ex-U.S. presidents Bill Clinton and Donald Trump, to name just a few.
Trump once deftly suggested that “it is even said that he likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side.” This remains a gross understatement to say the least, as Epstein’s extravagant lifestyle veiled decades of extortion, sexual violence, human trafficking, and child abuse.
When law enforcement agencies started receiving reports of sexually inappropriate behavior with minors in 2005, it shed some degree of light on Epstein’s aberrant actions. As allegations mounted, in 2008, then Southern District of Florida U.S. Attorney Alexander Acosta arranged for what many have called a “sweetheart” plea deal (otherwise known as a non-prosecution agreement) that allowed Epstein to resolve all criminal liability with regard to his sex-trafficking activities in 2007 and prior by pleading down to a mere solicitation of prostitution charge. Acosta would later serve as Secretary of Labor within the Trump administration.
Over the next decade, Epstein would both intimidate and pay his way out from under a litany of civil cases (many of which were either dismissed or settled out of court), and allegations would begin to spread regarding recruitment of underage girls by longtime partner and publishing heiress Ghislaine Maxwell, politically involved child sex rings, and cover-ups at a federal level. It wasn’t until the summer of 2019 that Epstein was finally arrested for his second slate of sex-related criminal cases. Regrettably, he never made it to the courtroom again.
On the morning of August 10, 2019, the once untouchable Epstein was found unresponsive in his cell, discovered in a kneeling position with a strip of bedsheet wrapped around his neck, in the aftermath of an apparent suicide — or so New York’s Office of Chief Medical Examiner would claim. The news of his death, along with the general knowledge of his well-connected and powerful peer group (peers whom Epstein may very well have dropped the dime on if given the opportunity to testify), led many to speculate that perhaps the official assertion of suicide was mere cover-up and, as the popular hashtag alleges, #epsteindidntkillhimself.
“Epstein didn’t kill himself” has all but replaced “jet fuel can’t melt steel beams” in terms of internet conspiracy rhetoric. To suggest otherwise, to say that Epstein in all likelihood did kill himself, is a bit of an uphill battle. Not only does much of the public at large view the official story as being somewhat unlikely, even renowned skeptic Michael Shermer has cast doubt on the suicide assessment.
Epstein’s removal from suicide watch, his guards’ purported negligence in keeping a watchful eye on him, a complete lack of video surveillance, not to mention a questionable neck fracture, all appear to add insult to noose-inflicted injury. As we’ll see, though, correlation doesn’t always equal causation.
Closed eye of the camera
Much is made of the lack of surveillance footage during Epstein’s final moments. If the surveillance cameras had been working perfectly the day of Epstein’s death, but mysteriously cut off moments before his demise, that would indeed be quite the coincidence.
But there’s also no footage of Timothy McVeigh parking his Ryder truck rigged with 4,800 pounds of explosives in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Building on April 10, 1995, either, because cameras on both the northwest and northeast corners of the Oklahoma City building weren’t recording. In fact, they hadn’t been for almost a decade prior, due to a cost-cutting measure.
Likewise, no surveillance footage was obtained showing American Airlines Flight 77 crashing into the Pentagon on 9/11, leading more conspiracy-minded people to believe the headquarters of the U.S. Department of Defense was actually struck by a missile. The reality of the matter is that security cameras are typically trained on threats coming in from the ground, by doorways. They don’t typically anticipate threats from the sky (at least they didn’t, before then).
Like the Murrah Building and the Pentagon, the Metropolitan Correctional Center, where Epstein was incarcerated, is a federal building. Clearly, that doesn’t necessarily mean its security cameras were regularly maintained, or in proper working order. Not to mention the fact that corrections officers are routinely overworked and regularly understaffed. At the time of Epstein’s death, there were a mere 18 corrections officers on duty, tasked with monitoring about 750 inmates. To quote Fox Business Network senior corespondent Charles Gasparino:
If you want to know how [Epstein] could slip through the cracks on this, the New York’s Metropolitan Correction Center used to be called the tombs. It’s a notoriously, you know, harsh place. It’s understaffed and largely staffed by not the smartest people. He knew his life was done. He wanted to kill himself and he killed himself the first chance he got.
A bone to pick
Some people point toward a fractured hyoid bone in Epstein’s neck as proof that the incarcerated millionaire was strangled, rather than succumbing to a suicidal hanging. Epstein, who they think holds blackmail on the world’s elite, was choked out by a paid-off inmate.
Much of this idea is propped up by forensic pathologist Michael Baden who, while acting as an analyst on Fox News stated that “hanging does not cause these broken bones, and homicide does.” Baden later said of Epstein’s injuries that they were “more indicative of homicidal strangulation,” and that he believed “the evidence points toward homicide rather than suicide.”
This might, at first glance, seem a convincing argument from authority, but a number of things need to be pointed out about Baden’s career. For starters, he’s a celebrity doctor (akin to Dr. Oz or Deepak Chopra) who’s made numerous appearances on Red Eye and Fox and Friends, and appears drawn toward the spotlight. He also testified as a defense witness for O.J. Simpson during the murder trials of Ron Goldman and Nicole Brown.
Baden was Chief Medical Examiner of the City of New York until then Mayor Ed Koch booted him, following a slate of second-rate trial testimony, unethical work practices, “sloppy record keeping, poor judgment, and a lack of cooperation.” More damningly, Baden was brought aboard by Epstein’s brother Mark for the seemingly sole purpose of contradicting the assessment of New York’s current Chief Medical Examiner, Barbara Sampson.
Sampson holds firm to her initial ruling that, with regard to Epstein, “The cause is hanging, the manner is suicide.” While the hyoid bone doesn’t always break in suicides by hanging, it does happen, particularly in older males (Epstein was 66). In a study conducted by the Forensic Science Centre in Adelaide, Australia, 10 out of the 40 cadavers examined in the aftermath of a suicidal hanging had a fracture to their hyoid bone. The ages of the cadavers ranged from 17–74 years, and the fractured hyoids tended to be more common within the older subset.
“In forensics, it’s a general principle that all information from all aspects of an investigation must be considered together,” Sampson says. “You can’t draw a conclusion from one finding.”
Doing the time
Apart from the Chief ME’s testimony, a cursory glance at the timeline of events in the weeks prior to Epstein’s death should be considered. On July 6, Epstein was taken into custody, apprehended at Teterboro Airport in New Jersey. On July 8, Epstein was brought up on charges of sex trafficking and conspiracy to traffic minors for sex. On July 18, Epstein was denied bail by Judge Richard M. Berman, partly due to concern that he’d pull a Roman Polanski and attempt to flee the country.
On July 23, Epstein was placed on suicide watch after being found in a state of semi-consciousness, with marks on his neck resulting from either a possible fight with an inmate, or an early suicide attempt. A mere six days later, on July 29, Epstein was taken off suicide watch. While this remains suspicious to some, it’s worth noting that Epstein’s own defense team (likely at Epstein’s behest) pushed to have him removed from suicide watch. On August 8, Epstein revised and signed his last will and testament. On this date, two days before his death, Epstein placed his entire fortune of well over $500 million into a trust on the Virgin Islands.
On August 14, the statute of limitations regarding rape in New York was extended, allowing survivors of child sex abuse new parameters to retaliate against their abusers. This legislative shift went into effect four days after Epstein’s death, but the state legislature had passed the Child Victims Act back in January. It was signed into law by Governor Andrew Cuomo in February, and was widely reported over the intervening months. Epstein’s legal team (and, in turn, Epstein himself) would’ve been well aware of the new law.
Doing the crime
Taking these various factors into account, it’s clear that Epstein had the means, motivation, and opportunity to commit suicide all on his own. And if he’d been assassinated so he couldn’t blackmail the world elites, why hasn’t the same fate befallen the currently incarcerated Maxwell, Epstein’s literal partner in crime?
Now, is it possible that one or more of Epstein’s powerful acquaintances coerced him toward the act via threatening phone calls or prison communications? Maybe. We’ll likely never know. What almost certainly did not transpire was a Hillary Clinton-hired hit team, Ocean’s Elevening their way into Epstein’s cell and staging some false flag lynching.
“[Epstein] tries at all times to be the master of his domain and in control of his world,” said victim’s attorney Spencer Kuvin, who commissioned a psychological profile of Epstein, before his death. “As soon as he feels he’s out of control, it’s unsettling to him.” Epstein was faced with trading his life of abject wealth and privilege for a prison cell. While suicide is often tragic it can, at times, also be a sniveling coward’s way to avoid the repercussions of their actions. And Epstein was, by all accounts, a sniveling coward.
Having it both ways
The odd duality with conspiracy belief is that, despite a complete and utter mistrust in the government, even the most ardent adherents to such theories counterintuitively believe the government is good at their job. A flying saucer crashes in Roswell, New Mexico, and it’s kept quiet. President John F. Kennedy’s assassinated via a second shooter and it‘s kept quiet. 9/11‘s an inside job and it’s kept quiet. The 2020 presidential election’s stolen from Trump and it’s kept quiet. In reality, the government couldn’t even keep Watergate quiet, or Chappaquiddick, or the Iran-Contra deals.
Epstein’s death remains something of a tragedy — not for the person himself, but rather because Epstein’s criminal hearing could’ve exposed other high profile sex offenders. Also because Epstein’s survivors deserved to face their attacker in a court of law. As is so often the case, wild and unsubstantiated conjecture places far too much emphasis on the culprit (in this case, Epstein) and not nearly enough on the various people who had to suffer under his abuse.
The Critical Angle is a recurring feature that uses critical thinking and skepticism to analyze pop culture phenomena. Skepticism is an approach to evaluating claims that emphasizes evidence and applies the tools of science. Rather than repeating the same old arguments, we put them to the test.
AIPT Science is co-presented by AIPT and the New York City Skeptics.
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