The Miami Herald’s “Perversion of Justice” investigative team joined leading sex trafficking experts Tuesday night as they discussed the challenges, rewards and remaining questions of reporting on “one of the most lenient plea deals of a child sex trafficker” in the country.

“When I saw stories about Jeffrey Epstein, who molested dozens of women, he had fallen into a sort of footnote of story,” said Herald investigative reporter Julie K. Brown, who wrote the three-part series examining how the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Miami granted Epstein the deal.

“It was this storyline that really involved a lot of salacious details and did not address what I felt was the most important thing … how did these prosecutors left him off the hook, essentially?”

Brown was joined on the stage by Herald visual journalist Emily Michot, who also worked on the project, at a town hall moderated by Nancy Ancrum, the Herald’s editorial page editor. Dozens of people turned out for the event, which took place at the Actors’ Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre in Coral Gables.

Brown and Michot answered questions from the audience, as they recalled some of the key moments in the Epstein reporting saga, which attempted to give voice to Epstein’s sex trafficking victims, which included dozens of underage girls.

One of the audience members asked about how the victims were coping.

“This kind of story can’t be told without hearing from the women themselves,” said Michot. “They do stay with you. It’s also very hard because you get … you keep hearing those hardest quotes again and again. You worry about them, you hope that they’re doing well.”

Also on the panel were Marci Hamilton, a University of Pennsylvania professor and child sex trafficking expert, and Somy Ali, founder of No More Tears, a Broward nonprofit that works with domestic violence victims.

Hamilton said that while many states have begun to consider doing away with statute of limitations in sex abuse cases, Florida is not on that list. She said in the past year, following the Herald’s reporting, 20 child abuse laws have been passed around the country.

“Florida often prides itself on good statute of limitations for child sex abuse,” Hamilton said. “Florida has never helped the victims from the past, and all the victims from the past are shut out of the court.”

The Perversion of Justice Town Hall also featured the announcement of a new Herald initiative to fund investigative journalism by the McClatchy-owned newspaper. The Miami Herald Investigative Lab strives to raise $1.5 million over the next three years, and create “one of the largest independent investigative teams in the country.”

The fund seeks to double the size of the Herald’s investigative team, adding two full-time reporter positions, a data visualization specialist, a videographer and an editor.

“It restores my faith to see all of you here tonight because it means you support our mission and you support our work,” said Aminda Marqués González, publisher and executive editor of the Herald.

Perversion of Justice, a three-part investigative series published in the Herald in November, uncovered the lenient plea deal the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Miami, then headed by Alexander Acosta, gave to multimillionaire Jeffrey Epstein, who was accused of creating a sex trafficking network involving dozens of underage girls.

Much of the abuse took place in Epstein’s palatial mansion in Palm Beach, where he and his enablers recruited vulnerable girls at nearby malls and schools. Epstein has been linked to prominent politicians, businessmen, academics and royalty.

The investigation began when a 14-year-old girl and her parents reported to police that Epstein molested her at his Palm Beach mansion. She said a female acquaintance and classmate at Royal Palm Beach High School had taken her to the house to give him a massage in exchange for money. Palm Beach police arrested Epstein in 2005.

Under the 2008 plea deal, Epstein pleaded guilty to one count of solicitation of prostitution and one count of solicitation of prostitution with a minor under the age of 18. He was sentenced to 18 months in jail, and in a special work-release program, was allowed to leave the county stockade for up to 12 hours a day, six days a week, picked up by his private driver and transported to an office in West Palm Beach, where he accepted visitors. He returned to the stockade in the evenings to sleep.

Acosta signed off on the deal, which was kept from the victims. After the Herald’s series was published last year, Acosta, who had been named U.S. Labor Secretary in the Trump administration, was roundly criticized for the lenient plea deal.

In February, a federal judge ruled that the prosecutors had broken the federal Crime Victims’ Rights Act when they had concealed the plea agreement from the victims.

Acosta resigned in July as Labor Secretary.

Epstein was arrested again on July 6, on federal charges filed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Manhattan, accusing him of sex trafficking of minors in Florida and New York. He died in his New York jail cell on Aug. 10; the medical examiner ruled the death a suicide.

At the time of Epstein’s suicide, the U.S. Marshals Service was investigating more recent reports of underage girls going to his private island in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Two days after Epstein was found dead, the Marshals’ probes were shut down, and a week later the case was closed.

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