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The first part of Julie K. Brown’s Perversion of Justice: The Jeffrey Epstein Story reads like a good ol’ fashioned newspaper yarn. It even culminates with Brown’s pilgrimage to the presses of the Miami Herald, to watch her blockbuster 2018 exposé roll out on newsprint and into the delivery trucks. Brown’s story, the product of months of dogged work, precipitated the arrest of Epstein the following year on federal charges for the sex trafficking of minors and won her the prestigious George Polk Award. Her account of how she got the story will be adapted as a limited series by HBO. It’s a tale replete with stonewalling public officials, caviling editors, conspiratorial whisperings, threatening phone calls made to potential sources, and even an ominous white van parked for hours outside the home of Brown’s stalwart reporting partner, photographer Emily Michot. In short, the stuff that Oscar bait (and top-drawer entertainment) like the 2015 movie Spotlight is made of.
But because all this happened in the age of the internet, Perversion of Justice also features countless minor insults to undermine any cinematically satisfying shot of a bale of newspapers slapping down on a sidewalk. Brown’s big story, also titled “Perversion of Justice,” was published online first, as all scoops are these days. As she stood in the newsroom watching a digital screen listing the Herald’s most-read stories of the morning, she was sure that her piece—despite all the blood, sweat, tears, and weeks that went into writing it—could never top a nugget headlined “Woman Passes Gas in Store, Then Pulls Knife.” She checked her once-sleepy Twitter account and noticed that suddenly she had thousands of followers. “Then the unbelievable happened,” Brown writes of the reporting that made her a household name, at least in journalism circles: “It beat the fart story.”
Brown wasn’t the first journalist to cover Epstein or to scrutinize the 2008 plea deal in which the billionaire got off with a mere slap on the wrist, despite ample evidence that he had lured scores of underage girls to his Palm Beach mansion to molest and sexually exploit them. But Brown resuscitated the story by poring over reams of court documents, meticulously tracing the myriad ways Epstein’s powerful friends and well-funded lawyers manipulated the justice system on his behalf. Most importantly, she tracked down multiple victims—no easy task, since the legal documents anonymized them—and persuaded several women to be interviewed on the record, as well as winning over the wary Palm Beach police detective and police chief who, she soon realized, “seemed to the be the only two people who were willing to risk their careers to go after Jeffrey Epstein.” As an indirect result of her piece, Alexander Acosta, former Miami U.S. attorney and leader of the 2008 prosecution, resigned from his post as Donald Trump’s secretary of labor. By the time Epstein died in a cell in New York’s Metropolitan Correctional Center in 2019 and that death was controversially declared a suicide, the story had become too big for any one journalist, and while Brown clearly regards the circumstances as suspicious, she doesn’t appear to be pursuing it any further.
Perversion of Justice makes clear that even as she doggedly investigated her career-topping story, Brown, a single mother with two children, struggled to make ends meet on a reporter’s ever-shrinking paycheck. Even as she cajoled sources into speaking on the record, the woman at the check-cashing store where Brown went for frequent payday loans came to know her by her first name and to ask after her kids. Brown had taken pay cuts and furloughs to hold onto her job, and counted it as an achievement in 2016 that she was finally making the same salary she’d been offered when the Herald had hired her a decade earlier. As Michelle Goldberg has pointed out in the New York Times, the devastation the internet has wrought on local journalism has made it much easier for predators like Epstein to get away with their crimes; Brown stuck with it, but imagine all the reporters who didn’t, or couldn’t.
The early and (quietly) most heroic parts of Perversion of Justice can be somewhat heavy sledding, given that Epstein’s tactics in evading justice involved phalanxes of lawyers and the manipulation of dense procedural thickets that can confound the mind of a mere layperson. I could only admire Brown for toughing it out through that stuff. Her post-publication experiences are in some ways the most depressingly typical of contemporary journalism, the daily grind of fending off randos and rivals. A crackpot former socialite who had self-published a book on Epstein started showing up when Brown made public appearances, loudly accusing her of plagiarism. She suspects the New York Times of so dazzling her with VIP treatment when she visited the paper’s offices that she inadvertently slipped and handed them an Epstein-related lead. (The Times editor involved claims otherwise.) Most of all, she and the Herald have been bedeviled by Alan Dershowitz, the octogenarian attorney who both worked for Epstein and has been accused of joining in the abuse of some of his victims. Among his many maddening gambits, Dershowitz would proclaim that certain sealed court documents disproved Brown’s reporting, then, when she and her editors asked him to substantiate this by showing them the material, accuse them of trying to get him to break the law.
When Epstein was first arrested, in 2008, Dershowitz sought to defend him by smearing his accusers. He sent state prosecutors printouts of one victim’s Myspace page, writing, “You will note that she, herself, has chosen to go by the name ‘Pimp Juice’ and the site goes on to detail, including photos, her apparent fascination with marijuana.” Epstein sought girls who met a certain physical type: white, petite, tattoo-free, and no older than 17, with blond or light-brown hair. But he also targeted the vulnerable and marginalized, runaways and girls from troubled families, many with no money or permanent place to live and some with drug habits. In a nightmarish Catch-22, the same misfortunes that made them easy prey became excuses to dismiss their accounts of what Epstein did to them.
It’s clear that Brown—whose single mother was looked down upon in the Pennsylvania town where she grew up and who became an emancipated minor at 16, taking factory jobs to pay the rent—identifies with these victims. Class, as much as the dismal state of journalism, is the great undercurrent in Perversion of Justice and gives this scrappy book its heart. The most egregious transgression in the plea deal that sparked Brown’s Herald investigation was a violation of the Crime Victims’ Rights Act, which dictates that victims must be informed of an impending deal and given the chance to speak at the defendant’s sentencing. Epstein’s victims were simply left out of this process, and more than one source remarked to Brown that the prosecutors sometimes seemed to be teamed up with the defense against the victims. In a sense, as fellow members of the professional class, they were.
The assumption that Epstein’s victims were insignificant and disposable pervaded everything he did. In a striking anecdote, Brown hears about Epstein’s longtime friendship with Donald Trump, who once fondly remarked that Epstein was “a lot of fun to be with. It is even said that he likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side.” According to the story Brown was told, the two men finally fell out when Epstein hit on the daughter of a member of Mar-a-Lago. That was an uncharacteristic misstep for Epstein, hunting among the people who count. While Brown was chasing the Epstein story, the Times and the New Yorker broke stories on Harvey Weinstein, exposing sexual harassment and assault within a social stratum that can fairly be called the “media elite.” Brown’s own editor was skeptical that her Epstein story had legs before the testimony of Hollywood actresses made headlines. But Brown—who, like most local newspaper reporters, hovered somewhere between the working and middle classes—always knew that Epstein’s victims, women not so very different from herself, were a big enough story. They were just waiting for the right person to tell it.