In Depth

Why have Jeffrey Epstein’s prison guards been charged with conspiracy?

The US financier died in his jail cell while awaiting trial for sex trafficking charges

Two prison guards have been accused of falsifying records to cover up their failure to check in on accused sex offender Jeffrey Epstein in the hours before he killed himself.

The correctional officers, named as Tova Noel and Michael Thomas, are the first people to be criminally charged in connection with the disgraced financier’s death in a Manhattan jail cell while he awaited trial. Both officers have pleaded not guilty to charges that they falsely certified to having conducted inmate counts and to a conspiracy charge.

Why was Epstein in jail?

Epstein was being held at New York City’s Metropolitan Correctional Center after being arrested in July for alleged sex offences against minors in Florida and New York.

Some of his victims were just 14 years old, according to a 13-page indictment charging Epstein with sex trafficking and sex trafficking conspiracy.

The tycoon - who had an estimated net worth of $577m (£447m) when he died - was denied bail, with a judge labelling him a “danger to others”.

Epstein was already a registered sex offender, after pleading guilty to state prostitution charges including soliciting an underage girl in a separate case in Florida in 2008. He had spent 13 months behind bars for those crimes.

What happened on the night Epstein died?

According to an indictment against Noel and Thomas, the two guards were just 15ft away from Epstein when he took his own life.

The Daily Mail reports that on the evening of his death, the officers “sat at their desks, browsed online and moved about the common area for a substantial portion of their shift instead of completing the required checks”.

Both Noel and Thomas reportedly “appeared to be asleep at their desks for about two hours”.

Prosecutors say Noel spent most of her waking time surfing the net for furniture sales, while Thomas searched online for motorcycle sales and sports news,  Reuters reports.

The pair found Epstein dead in his cell on 10 August after taking him his breakfast at 6.30am, according to the indictment. They are said to have last checked on him at “10.30pm the night before”, says the Daily Mail.

CNN reports that on finding Epstein, Noel allegedly told a supervisor: “We did not complete the 3am and 5am rounds”.

According to the indictment, Thomas said that “we messed up”, adding: “I messed up, she’s not to blame, we didn’t do any rounds.”

Prosecutors claim the two officers “repeatedly signed false certifications attesting to having conducted multiple counts of inmates that they did not do”. 

After pleading not guilty to the charges against them during a court appearance this week, both officers are reportedly expected to be released on bail.

What else do we know?

The court filings against the two officers also state that Epstein had tried to kill himself weeks before his successful attempt.

According to CNN, officers found Epstein “on the floor of his cell with a strip of bedsheet around his neck” on 23 July.

He was subsequently placed on suicide watch in the jail’s hospital wing, where he was observed around the clock by either a staff member or a “specially trained inmate companion”.

On 30 July, Epstein was transferred back to his cell, but was required to have an “assigned cellmate”. However, The Guardian reports that the morning before Epstein’s death, his cellmate was moved in a “routine, pre-arranged transfer”.

“No new cellmate was assigned to his cell,” court papers said.

His subsequent death was ruled by the New York medical examiner to be suicide by hanging. 

What will happen next?

The two officers have been placed on administrative leave while the US Justice Department and Federal Bureau of Investigation investigate the circumstances surrounding Epstein’s death, the Daily Mail reports. The warden of the jail has also been reassigned.

As The Guardian notes, Epstein’s death has “embarrassed federal officials because the case had an unusually high profile”.

The trial continues.

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