NEW YORK - Two jail guards who were on duty when Jeffrey Epstein killed himself browsed the internet and napped during the night before his body was found, instead of checking on him every half-hour as they were required to do, prosecutors have said. The guards then lied, prosecutors said, on official logs, indicating that they had made the rounds when they had not.
Attorney General William Barr said last week that Epstein's death resulted from "a perfect storm of screw-ups."
But lawyers for the guards, who have been criminally charged, suggested in court Monday that their clients were being made into scapegoats for larger problems in the federal prison system that contributed to Epstein's death.
The Manhattan jail where Epstein hanged himself has long been plagued by staff shortages and the two guards, Michael Thomas and Tova Noel, had already done several tours of overtime that week.
In addition, Epstein was left alone without a cellmate that night and morning, even though he had tried to take his own life about three weeks earlier.
"Unfortunately, the decisions that led to the death of Mr. Epstein were not only because of what my client did or did not do," Montell Figgins, the lawyer for Thomas, said. "It was because of a system that failed completely."
"Where are the supervisors?" Figgins added. "Where are the people who make the policy decisions? Why didn't Mr. Epstein have a cellmate at the time that this happened?"
Figgins made his remarks outside U.S. District Court in Manhattan after a hearing at which Judge Analisa Torres set a trial date of April 20 for Thomas and Noel, who face charges that include making false records and conspiracy to defraud the United States. Both have pleaded not guilty.
Noel's lawyer, Jason E. Foy, said that he had not seen the evidence against his client, but he vowed to investigate her case vigorously. He said he believed there were "outside circumstances that are driving this prosecution."
Foy, who also spoke after the hearing, said the charges did not "sound like your regular false-document case," an apparent reference to the unusual circumstances and high-profile nature of Epstein's death.
The U.S. attorney's office in Manhattan and the Bureau of Prisons declined to comment on the lawyers' assertions.
The indictment charging the two guards highlighted lapses in the operation of a high-security unit at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in New York, where Epstein, a financier, was awaiting trial on sex trafficking charges when he died.
The indictment also offered the first official narrative of the events preceding his death. It said that security cameras did not show anyone entering the cell block where Epstein was housed, suggesting that despite the conjecture and conspiracy theories swirling around Epstein and his connections to powerful people, his death was a suicide as New York City's chief medical examiner ruled.
At the hearing Monday, a prosecutor, Rebekah A. Donaleski, told Torres that the discovery materials the government would provide to defense lawyers included hundreds of hours of video recordings from inside the jail.
Although Donaleski did not elaborate on the recordings' contents, the indictment said that video obtained from the jail's internal video surveillance system confirmed that no one visited the tier where Epstein was being held after about 10:30 p.m. on Aug. 9.
"This was the last time anyone, including any correctional officer, walked up to, let alone entered, the only entrance to the tier in which Epstein was housed until approximately 6:30 a.m. on Aug. 10," when his body was found, the indictment said.
The defense lawyers said in court that they wanted prosecutors to provide them with additional evidence that might be used at trial. Figgins cited an internal investigation by the Justice Department inspector general's office into the circumstances surrounding Epstein's death. The results of that inquiry will not be made public, officials have said.
Outside the courthouse, Figgins said that there had been an unfair "rush to judgment" in the case and that the two guards were being made to pay for the problems of an entire system.
"Does anyone think that throughout the United States that these are the only two guards that may have taken a nap overnight on their shift?" he said. "I highly doubt it."
The attention that Epstein's suicide has brought to prison conditions, inmate supervision and mental health issues around the country was reinforced Sunday with a letter published in The New York Times by Richard M. Berman, the federal judge in Manhattan who presided in Epstein's criminal case before his suicide.
Berman wrote that the indictment of the two guards was not the "full accounting" to which Epstein's alleged victims, the public and his family were entitled.
"We all agree that it is unthinkable that any detainee, let alone a high-profile detainee like Mr. Epstein, would die unnoticed at the Metropolitan Correctional Center," the judge wrote.
He said it would be "a tragic and costly missed opportunity" for the Bureau of Prisons and the attorney general "to fail to undertake - and to make public - an in-depth evaluation of prison conditions (not only at the MCC) and to carry out appropriate reforms."
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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