NEW YORK (REUTERS) - A succession of women who say Jeffrey Epstein sexually abused them voiced anger and defiance in a packed New York courtroom on Tuesday (Aug 27), expressing raw emotions during a dramatic hearing less than three weeks after the financier killed himself while awaiting trial on sex trafficking charges.
"He showed the world what a depraved and cowardly human being he was by taking his own life," one of the women, Sarah Ransome, said at the hearing before US District Judge Richard Berman that lasted about two and a half hours.
"I will not let him win in death," another woman, Chauntae Davies, told the court.
Federal prosecutors appeared at the hearing to ask the judge to formally dismiss their case against Epstein. One after another, the accusers then detailed Epstein's actions against them years ago. In all, 16 women testified, including six who did so without giving their names, and lawyers read statements from seven other women.
Epstein, who once counted US President Donald Trump and former President Bill Clinton as friends, was arrested on July 6 and pleaded not guilty to federal charges of sex trafficking involving dozens of girls as young as 14.
The 66-year-old was found dead Aug 10 in his cell at the Metropolitan Correctional Center (MCC) in Lower Manhattan. An autopsy concluded that he hanged himself.
Explaining why he gave the women and their lawyers an opportunity to address the court, the judge it was "both because of their relevant experiences and because they should always be involved before, rather than after, the fact."
After the hearing, Berman said "everyone has benefited greatly" from hearing from the women.
Prosecutors accused Epstein of arranging for girls to perform nude "massages" and other sex acts, and paying some girls to recruit others, from at least 2002 to 2005.
Some of the women said he raped them.
"The fact that I will never have a chance to face my predator in court eats away at my soul," said Jennifer Araoz, another of the women.
"I feel very angry and sad that justice has never been served in this case," Courtney Wild, another accuser, told the hearing.
Davies told the court Epstein hired her to give massages.
She said Epstein raped her the third or fourth time they met on his private island and continued to abuse her.
Berman ordered prosecutors and defence lawyers for Epstein to appear in court after the Manhattan US Attorney's office said it wanted to dismiss the indictment against the financier in light of his jail cell death.
During the hearing, attorney Brad Edwards, who represents women who say they were sexually abused by Epstein, said the financier's "untimely death" was "curious," adding: "More so, it makes it absolutely impossible for the victims to ever get the day in court that they wanted, and to get full justice. That now can never happen."
At the hearing, Assistant US Attorney Maurene Comey said the law required the dismissal of the case in light of Epstein's death, but said the government's investigation was ongoing.
"Dismissal of this indictment as to Jeffrey Epstein in no way prohibits or inhibits the government's ongoing investigation into potential co-conspirators," Comey said.
Epstein's death has triggered investigations by the FBI, the US Department of Justice's Office of Inspector General and the US Bureau of Prisons, which runs the detention facility.
Epstein lawyers Reid Weingarten and Martin Weinberg said they had doubts about the conclusion that Epstein committed suicide.
Epstein's arrest in New York came more than a decade after Epstein avoided being prosecuted on similar federal charges in Florida by striking a deal that allowed him to plead guilty to state prostitution charges.
That deal, which has been widely criticized as too lenient, resulted in Epstein serving 13 months in a county jail, which he was allowed to leave during the day on work release.
Brittany Henderson, a lawyer with Edwards' firm, read a statement from another victim, Michelle Licata.
"I was told then that Jeffrey Epstein was going to be held accountable, but he was not," she said of the earlier investigation.
"The case ended without me knowing what was going on... I was treated like I did not matter."
Multiple women have filed civil lawsuits against Epstein's estate since his death, saying he abused them and seeking damages. Some have alleged the abuse continued after his plea deal and even while he was on work release from his previous jail sentence.
Just two days before his death, Epstein signed a will placing all of his property, worth more than US$577 million (S$800 million), in a trust, according to a copy of the document seen by Reuters.
Another woman, who chose not to give her name, told the hearing that Epstein's death must be investigated.
"We do need to know how he died. It felt like a whole new trauma... It didn't feel good to wake up that morning and find that he allegedly committed suicide," she said, holding back tears.