MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
An update now on the case of Jeffrey Epstein - he is the financier who was found dead in his jail cell last August while awaiting trial on sex trafficking charges. Today federal prosecutors in New York indicted the two guards who were responsible for monitoring Epstein. For more details, we're joined by NPR's Bobby Allyn. Hi, Bobby.
BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: Hello.
KELLY: All right. So there've been so many questions about how Jeffrey Epstein ended up dead in this jail cell. Why - what did we learn today with these new charges?
ALLYN: So we actually learned quite a bit. We learned that two prison guards, Michael Thomas and Tova Noel, were assigned to the wing of the jail Epstein was in. It's called the Metropolitan Correctional Center. People just call it the MCC. And that - they were actually the only two guards in Epstein's section of the jail when he was found dead. And what this indictment lays out is, you know, just a really detailed hour-by-hour look of how these two prison guards allegedly didn't do their jobs. I mean, it was an overnight shift, and Epstein was supposed to be checked in on twice an hour. That's per facility protocol. But prosecutors in these charging documents say the guards went eight hours without ever checking on Epstein even once.
And so - and the - you know, the indictment is saying that these two guards were, instead of checking on Epstein, on the Internet. They were looking up sports news. They were reading about furniture and motorcycles. Prosecutors say they were even caught on camera sleeping for a couple of hours. And it wasn't until Epstein's breakfast had to be served - around 6:30 in the morning - that the guards went down the jail hall, peered in his cell and saw him unresponsive with a bedsheet around his neck. In the indictment, one of the guards is quoted as telling his boss, quote, "We messed up."
KELLY: Now, to the what exactly happened question, New York's medical examiner said this was apparently a suicide, but Epstein's family is challenging that, right? They say that he was killed by someone else. Do today's charges from prosecutors address that at all?
ALLYN: So prosecutors marshal a lot of evidence in these charging documents. I mean, they pored over hours and hours of surveillance footage showing that nobody at all entered Epstein's secure section of the jail before he was found dead. And he was alone in his jail cell, which is another important detail. So if you believe federal prosecutors here, it seems like the only plausible explanation is that he took his own life. But Jose Rojas, who is the president of the union representing these two workers, say that they should not be taking all the blame.
JOSE ROJAS: The emphasis should be on the conditions that caused this with the shortage of staff. And then who made the decision to take them off suicide watch, and then who made the decision to leave him in the cell alone?
ALLYN: Yeah. Rojas is saying that, you know, basically, these two workers are being scapegoated here. He says the top prison officials who, as he just noted - right? - took Epstein off suicide watch, then let him be in a cell alone, were actually violating prison policy. So Rojas said that's important, and we shouldn't forget that. Rojas also wanted to talk about how, for years, this Manhattan prison - and prison systems across the country, really - have been in the grips of a staffing crisis.
KELLY: Did these two federal prosecutors and the charges today address any of that, any of the union concerns?
ALLYN: So the indictment does note that one of the guards who is charged, one of the defendants here, was working a double shift, that, you know, this guard had been working 16 hours straight. Rojas says maybe that's why they were tired.
ROJAS: If the DOJ wants to blame somebody, they should look in the mirror. There is a crisis in our agency - not just in Manhattan, but throughout the bureau. We are so short of staff.
KELLY: I mean, it sounds, Bobby as though even with these - this indictment today of these two guards, there are still so many questions. And Bill Barr, the U.S. attorney general, has said he wants to get to the bottom of what happened to Epstein. Has he been specific about how he will do that?
ALLYN: I wouldn't say he's been specific yet. He did say he was, quote, unquote, "appalled" about the circumstances around Epstein's death, and not just Bill Barr, right? We have accusers here who are incredibly upset. You know, they say Epstein's death means he'll never be brought to justice. So yes, we have more detail now. We have an hour-by-hour play-by-play of what happened. But the Justice Department and many other authorities are still examining this case.
KELLY: Investigation's ongoing. All right. NPR's Bobby Allyn, thank you.
ALLYN: Thank you.
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