Watergate. Sexual abuse of underage boys in the Catholic Church. Edward Snowden. Harvey Weinstein. Investigative newspaper journalists have been responsible for breaking some of the most important and seismic stories of our time. The reporters who pursue these investigations – cemented in popular culture via Oscar-winning films like All the President’s Men and Spotlight – are a combination of social-justice advocates and dogged private detectives, often spending years chasing irrelevant or useless leads before stumbling upon the one that blows the doors off a story. Their process is by nature and necessity slow and inefficient, which makes them unattractive to contemporary newspaper editors and owners who prize speed and brevity over all else. These are the qualities that get clicks and go viral online; investigative journalism, by contrast, yields long, complicated stories that often require multiple parts and thousands of words to unfold. Unsurprisingly, many newspapers, especially local papers already strapped for cash, have curtailed or eliminated their investigative departments, and journalists who continue to follow stories that take months or even years to put together do so in the face of diminished compensation and a reluctance on the part of their employers even to cover the necessary travel expenses.
This is a situation Julie K. Brown is well familiar with. A twenty-year veteran with the Miami Herald, Brown details the cutbacks and financial constraints she was subject to in 2017, when she began work on what would become her signature achievement: a series of articles and a video documentary, cumulatively titled “Perversion of Justice,” that detailed the history of financier Jeffrey Epstein, who was indicted in July 2019 on charges of sex trafficking of minors and conspiracy and who died in prison under conspicuously mysterious circumstances one month later. Brown’s series also examined the sweetheart deal Epstein received in 2008 that saw him plead guilty to two charges of solicitation of prostitution in exchange for which he would serve only thirteen months and be granted immunity from federal prosecution. The architect of that deal, Alexander Acosta, at the time U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Florida, went on to become secretary of labour under Donald Trump. Acosta resigned that position as a result of backlash to the 2008 deal, a backlash that Brown’s reporting was largely responsible for.
Brown’s book-length account of her experiences, also titled Perversion of Justice, offers a detailed recapitulation of how she went about piecing her explosive series together, from the challenges in getting victims to tell their stories to institutional resistance from the Palm Beach Sheriff’s Office and elsewhere to her astonishment at the lack of attention paid to Acosta’s role in the Epstein plea deal during the former U.S. attorney’s confirmation hearings. She examines Epstein’s relationship to his ex-girlfriend Ghislaine Maxwell, who was arrested in 2020 and charged with “six felony counts, including sex trafficking of minors as young as fourteen, as well as perjury,” and his connections to politicians, both Republican (Trump) and Democrat (Bill Clinton), businessmen (Victoria Secret owner Lex Wexner), and royalty (Prince Andrew, who famously sat for a disastrous self-justifying BBC interview following Epstein’s death).
The book details Epstein’s modus operandi, which was to target young girls who were runaways, addicts, or otherwise vulnerable; many he would turn into recruiters of other girls in what Brown describes as a kind of sexual pyramid scheme. Epstein’s interactions with the young women he hired putatively as masseuses are discussed graphically, though not in any salacious or gratuitous manner; Brown’s sober forthrightness renders the accounts of Epstein’s survivors – including Michelle Licata, Courtney Wild, Virginia Giuffre, and Jena-Lisa Jones, who share the book’s dedication – that much more courageous and forceful.
In addition to being the Jeffrey Epstein story, Perversion of Justice is also, perhaps inevitably, the Julie K. Brown story. She recounts the years of “shoe-leather reporting” she and her photographer, Emily Michot, engaged in while following the various strands of the Epstein saga and underscores the difficulties this kind of endeavour entails when faced with limited resources and budgets. Some of this is morbidly funny, especially a scene on the island of St. Thomas in which Brown and Michot flee what was supposed to be a beautiful and bucolic Airbnb cottage that turned out to more closely resemble what Michot calls a “murder house.”
But the book falters when it veers too far from its central concern and starts to focus on Brown herself. Despite her contention that she does not enjoy being the centre of attention, she devotes multiple pages – in some cases whole chapters – to her relationship with her boyfriend (whom she names Mr. Big “because he was very tall”), her children’s academic experiences, and her love for the music of Bruce Springsteen. This stuff is merely distracting; when Brown goes out of her way to claim complete unconcern at her series not being shortlisted for a Pulitzer Prize, one doesn’t have to be Shakespeare to think the lady doth protest too much.
Brown’s writing is also peppered with clichés and other infelicities. When pointing out that the day Epstein was released from prison was the same day in 2009 as a “rare total solar eclipse,” Brown speculates melodramatically that this might augur “a return of the Epstein darkness.” In her introduction, she writes about unsuccessfully applying for a job at the Washington Post, an experience she refers to as “traumatic”; given the horrors described later in the book, this word in this context seems at best disingenuous, at worst downright callous.
Elsewhere, Brown levies speculations without providing evidence to back them up. “It was clear that someone at the sheriff’s office was watching his back,” she writes about Epstein’s ability to move freely following his release from prison. “Authorities in both New York and Florida had to be wondering how far the corruption went. Who was involved, and at what level?” The question goes unanswered. Similarly, she provides a series of questions about the circumstances surrounding Epstein’s death in prison – “What happened to the jail’s tapes? Why was Epstein left alone? Why was he released from suicide watch?” – before making clear that she has no answers. The best she can do is assert that “the FBI and the Justice Department have not persuaded me … that Jeffrey Epstein killed himself” and quote Epstein’s brother saying “Jeffrey knew a lot of stuff about a lot of people” to bolster her speculation that foul play was involved.
It’s doubtful any of this would have passed muster with the editorial oversight at any major newspaper. “Editors aren’t always good humans,” Brown writes. Perhaps so, but one of their important functions is to save the writer from herself.
That said, what Brown does accomplish in Perversion of Justice is to demonstrate – as if any further demonstration were required – the extent to which money and power can conspire to shield a predator from justice, while failing to provide relief or a duty of care to the victims of powerful or connected people. Epstein was allowed not just to survive but to flourish for so long because of a justice system and governmental apparatus in thrall to the twin shibboleths of wealth and influence. His death in prison does not signal the conclusion of his story, but it does rob his victims of any hope for justice in a courtroom. By acting as an advocate and a voice for these women, and a scold opposing the system that let them down, Brown has provided an invaluable service.