‘Shocking’ decision before Epstein’s death
Jeffrey Epstein was perhaps the most high profile prison inmate in the United States.
He was locked in one of the country's most secure facilities, and had reportedly tried to take his own life once before.
So how was he allowed to kill himself in custody?
Two investigations have already been launched to find the answer to that question.
Epstein was found unresponsive in his cell at Manhattan Correctional Centre at about 6:30am on Saturday morning (local time). He was taken to hospital, but it was already too late.
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The billionaire financier's shock death came barely a month after he was arrested on July 6 and charged with sex trafficking and conspiracy.
Prosecutors alleged Epstein and his associates had paid dozens of underage girls, some as young as 14, to engage in sex acts. He was facing up to 45 years in jail.
Now he will never be brought to justice.
Attorney-General William Barr heads the US Justice Department, which was ultimately responsible for Epstein, as he was being held in a federal prison.
Mr Barr is demanding answers.
"I was appalled to learn that Jeffrey Epstein was found dead early this morning from an apparent suicide while in federal custody," he said today.
"Epstein's death raises serious questions that must be answered. In addition to the FBI's investigation, I have consulted with the Inspector General who is opening an investigation into the circumstances of Epstein's death."
Both investigations will examine the baffling decision to take Epstein off suicide watch, despite another suspected suicide attempt less than three weeks ago.
Epstein was found unconscious in his cell with bruises on his neck on July 23. Officials were unsure whether the injuries were the result of self-harm or an assault by a fellow inmate.
As you would expect, all federal prisons in the United States have measures in place to protect inmates who are at risk of taking their own lives.
After the incident on July 23, Epstein was placed on suicide watch.
What does that mean, exactly? According to the New York Times, inmates on suicide watch are "generally placed in a special observation cell, surrounded with windows, with a bolted down bed and no bedclothes". Someone is assigned to monitor them at all hours.
Prison expert Robert Gangi told the newspaper guards usually deprive the inmate of his shoelaces and belt as well.
"If he's on suicide watch, it's virtually impossible to kill yourself," Mr Gangi said.
CNN reports Epstein underwent daily psychological assessments during his own period on suicide watch. At the end of July, psychologists from the Bureau of Prisons made the call to take him off.
Typically, that decision would need to be approved by both the facility's chief psychologist and the warden.
Keeping someone on suicide watch and monitoring them constantly does sap prison resources, often forcing staff to work overtime, so typically the arrangement only lasts a few days.
Nevertheless, legal and prison experts slammed officials today.
"For them to pull him off suicide watch is shocking," former warden Cameron Lindsay told NBC News.
"For someone this high profile, with these allegations and this many victims, who has had a suicide attempt in the last few weeks, you can take absolutely no chances. You leave him on suicide watch until he's out of there."
After he was taken off suicide watch, Epstein was held in the Manhattan Correctional Centre's "Special Housing Unit", a section of the prison isolated from the general population.
A former MCC inmate, who spent four months in the SHU, told the New York Post it should have been impossible for Epstein to take his own life there.
"There's no way that man could have killed himself. I've done too much time in those units. It's an impossibility," the anonymous inmate said.
"They don't give you enough in there that could successfully create an instrument of death. you want to write a letter, they give you rubber pens and maybe once a week a piece of paper. Nothing hard or made of metal.
"And there's a cop at the door about every nine minutes, whether you're on suicide watch or not."
Officials will review prison footage to see whether guards were checking on Epstein as frequently as they were supposed to.
Another consideration is that the MCC, which holds more than 700 inmates, has a number of cells with cameras. Was Epstein put in one of them? If so, why was no one monitoring it? And if not, why not?
The MCC has notoriously high security. It has previously held drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, mob boss John Gotti and the World Trade Centre bombers.
"This happened in one of the most secure and most important federal lockups in the country. Not some county jail or state prison," said George Conway, a prominent lawyer and the husband of White House adviser Kellyanne Conway.
"With the most high profile pre-trial detainee in the country. Who had tried to kill himself once just days ago. I mean, stuff happens, but this is beyond astounding."
Then there are the inevitable conspiracy theories. Epstein's sex trafficking ring reportedly involved a number of powerful people. So far, we don't know who most of them are, but today authorities promised they would keep investigating.
"I am not into conspiracy theories. But Epstein had destructive information on an extraordinary number of extraordinarily powerful people. It is not easy to commit suicide in prison. Especially after being placed on suicide watch. Especially after already allegedly trying," said lawyer and public defender Scott Hechinger.
In a letter to the Attorney-General, Republican Senator Ben Sasse warned Epstein's "co-conspirators" would react with relief to his death.
"The Department of Justice failed, and today Jeffrey Epstein's co-conspirators think they might have just gotten one last sweetheart deal," Mr Sasse wrote.
"Given Epstein's previous attempted suicide, he should have been locked in a padded room under unbroken, 24/7, constant surveillance. Obviously heads must roll.
"It should have been abundantly clear that Epstein would go to any lengths to avoid being held accountable for his crimes, including by killing himself. Being responsible for Epstein's custody and prosecution, the Department of Justice should not have allowed this to happen."
President Donald Trump, who has always had a taste for conspiracy theories, took the extraordinary step of retweeting people suggesting the Clintons were involved.
The President of the United States is amplifying conspiracy theories suggesting his political enemies committed murder. This is one of the nuttiest things Trump has done on Twitter and in itself proves he’s completely unfit to serve. pic.twitter.com/0H8zIQ3Epd— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) August 10, 2019
Just to remind you; the President of the United States is retweeting lunatic online conspiracy theories because that's what normal people do.— Rick Wilson (@TheRickWilson) August 10, 2019
The day before Epstein's death, unsealed court documents showed former president Bill Clinton had travelled on the billionaire's plane.
Flight logs also show Mr Trump made one trip on the plane.
The President has frequently spread conspiracy theories about his political opponents.
Mr Trump was a leading proponent of the theory that Barack Obama was not an American citizen. During the 2016 election campaign, he suggested Republican opponent Ted Cruz's father had been involved in the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and fomented rumours Hillary Clinton was suffering from a debilitating illness.
There was no evidence to support any of those claims.
While Mr Trump was spreading conspiracy theories, the office investigating Epstein's underage sex ring released a statement saying its work would continue.
"Today's events are disturbing, and we are deeply aware of their potential to present yet another hurdle to giving Epstein's many victims their day in court," Manhattan US Attorney Geoffrey Berman said.
"To those brave young women who have already come forward and to the many others who have yet to do so, let me reiterate that we remain committed to standing for you, and our investigation of the conduct charged in the indictment, which included a conspiracy count, remains ongoing."
Mr Berman urged any other victims, or anyone with information related to the case, to contact the FBI.
If you are experiencing mental health issues or suicidal feelings contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or BeyondBlue 1300 224 636. If it is an emergency please call 000.
Sam Clench is news.com.au's political correspondent. Continue the conversation @SamClench
This is so deeply reckless and irresponsible it beggars belief. A government official at any other level would immediately lose their job over this. That it comes from the highest level is utterly outrageous. As I keep saying, a new national disgrace ever day. Every. Single. Day. https://t.co/SlPO6QZI6q— Gary Whitta (@garywhitta) August 10, 2019