In this courtroom artist's sketch, defendant Jeffrey Epstein (C) sits with attorneys Martin Weinberg (L) and Marc Fernich during his arraignment in New York federal court, July 8, 2019.
FILE - In this courtroom artist's sketch, defendant Jeffrey Epstein, center, sits with attorneys Martin Weinberg, left, and Marc Fernich during his arraignment in New York federal court, July 8, 2019.

This week's indictment of American multimillionaire Jeffrey Epstein on sex trafficking charges shows how public and political pressure fueled by the #MeToo movement is prompting prosecutors to take a closer look at sexual assault cases that most likely would have fallen by the wayside just a few years ago.

In 2007, Epstein, then a jet-setting money manager for the wealthy who counted Donald Trump and Bill Clinton among his friends, avoided charges for alleged sexual crimes involving minors that, upon conviction, could have put him behind bars for decades. 

At the time, Epstein stood accused of sexually abusing dozens of underage girls at his Florida and New York homes. Then the U.S. attorney's office in Florida offered Epstein a secret deal allowing him to walk free after a little over a year in prison. The office was headed by Alexander Acosta, who currently serves as President Donald Trump's labor secretary. Acosta announced his resignation Friday over his handling of Epstein's case. 

President Donald Trump, accompanied by Labor Secretary Alex Acosta, right, speaks to members of the media on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, July 12, 2019.

The Epstein deal was a decade before the movement known as #MeToo surfaced in 2017. Thousands of women in the United States and around the world came forward with harrowing personal accounts of mistreatment, from sexual harassment to rape. The movement also focused attention on how powerful men had gotten away with harassment by intimidating victims and using their influence to get more lenient punishments when caught.  

On Monday, federal prosecutors in New York unsealed a new indictment against Epstein, charging him with sex trafficking crimes that could keep him locked up for the rest of his life. 

The failure of federal prosecutors in Florida to charge Epstein with the same crimes set off a political firestorm, leading to Acosta's resignation. For many, the uproar is emblematic of how society views sexual violence in the #MeToo era. 

Without the #MeToo movement, "we would not have seen the reopening of the case against Jeffrey Epstein and certainly would not have seen the level of outrage that's existing," said Yasmin Vafa, executive director of Rights4Girls, an advocacy organization that campaigns against sexual violence.

The #MeToo movement started as a Twitter hashtag in October 2017, after numerous women went public with allegations of sexual assault against powerful Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein.

FILE - Harvey Weinstein, center, enters State Supreme Court in New York, Oct. 11, 2018.

In the months that followed, as more victims came forward with their own accounts of sexual abuse, dozens of influential men in business and the news media resigned in disgrace, accused of using their positions of authority to harass or assault women. 

"I think that for a long time you saw a reluctance to prosecute very high-profile offenders, and I think that's one of the things that the #MeToo movement has been able to change in a very positive way," said Camille Cooper, vice president of public policy at RAINN, the largest anti-sexual abuse organization in the United States. "Some of those people that would have been left at large, like well-known comedian Bill Cosby, are now being held accountable for their crimes."

In April 2018, Cosby was found guilty of drugging and sexually assaulting a woman in Pennsylvania nearly 14 years earlier, one of dozens of women who had made similar allegations going back decades. 

In May 2018, Weinstein was charged in New York with rape and other sex crimes against two women, and is awaiting trial.

And Thursday, R&B singer and songwriter R. Kelly was arrested in Chicago on a federal indictment that accuses him and members of his entourage of recruiting women and girls to engage in illegal sexual activity with him. 

History of leniency 

Some legal scholars say that in years past, prosecutors often ignored evidence or refused to believe victims. In Weinstein's case, for example, the Manhattan district attorney's office disregarded an audiotape in which Weinstein admitted to harassing one of his victims. In the Epstein case, prosecutors had "significant evidence," yet they allowed him to plead to two lesser state charges, according to Vafa. 

Penny Venetis, a law professor at Rutgers University, said the leniency shown to Epstein was common in a criminal justice system that often seems to favor the wealthy and well-connected. 

"Whereas someone who is not as connected as he was would have gotten life in jail for sex crimes committed against minors, he was able to use the jail as a hotel with his wife and then spend the evening after a certain time in a private jail cell," Venetis said. 

FILE - United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York Geoffrey Berman speaks during a news conference, in New York, July 8, 2019.

Speaking at a press conference Monday in New York, U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman declined to say what led prosecutors to reopen a case that had been dropped more than a decade ago. But Berman credited a recent investigative story by the Miami Herald that found about 80 women who had allegedly been sexually abused as minors by Epstein. 

The November 2018 expose triggered calls on the Justice Department to examine the Epstein deal, making it all but impossible for prosecutors to ignore revisiting the case, according to legal experts.

Increased prosecutions?

For all of #MeToo's impact, some see little evidence the movement has led to increased prosecution of sexual assault cases or stiffer penalties for the perpetrators. 

"If you go into any courthouse across this entire country, you'll see a significant number of sex crimes being pled down to very little time at all," Cooper said. 

In a recent survey by the University of California at San Diego, 23 percent of women and 9 percent men reported being sexually assaulted, a figure that has stayed steady over the past year. Most sexual assault cases remain unreported, and when they are reported, they're rarely prosecuted.

Yet with greater public awareness about sexual violence, authorities are less likely to avoid prosecuting someone based on a belief that a jury won't deliver a guilty verdict, said Jennifer Long, chief executive of AEquitas, a group of former prosecutors who work against sexual violence.

"With the greater awareness in the community and greater resolve to hold these perpetrators accountable, it bolsters the efforts of prosecutors who want to take these cases forward and who want to obtain justice on behalf of victims and on behalf of the community," said Long, who is also an adjunct law professor at Georgetown University. 

"#MeToo follows along decades of important advocacy, and it has certainly left many of us who've been working on these issues for a long time very hopeful," she added. "We have moved from a society that labels underage individuals as somehow complicit in any type of violence that they're suffering."