The correction officers accused of napping and shopping online the night Jeffrey Epstein killed himself are scapegoats for management problems at Manhattan’s federal lockup, their lawyers said Monday.
Tova Noel and Michael Thomas face an April 20 trial date. Following their not guilty pleas to charges they filed false paperwork while on duty at the Special Housing Unit at Metropolitan Correctional Center in lower Manhattan, where the multimillionaire sexual predator was held.
A false records charge carries a maximum sentence of five years.
“One of the issues (for the defense) will be the conditions, supervision, and policies upheld and advanced by the Bureau of Prisons,” said Montell Figgins, Thomas’ lawyer, during a brief hearing in Manhattan Federal Court.
“For this to happen, the system needed to fail,” Figgins said.
“Have you seen a case like this in the Southern District of New York?” asked Noel’s lawyer, Jason Foy, using the formal name for the territory covered by Manhattan federal prosecutors.
“I’m still trying to find one,” Foy said outside court.
Prosecutors said that during the overnight hours before Epstein’s body was discovered Aug. 10, Noel and Thomas slept at their desks and browsed the internet.
The correctional officers were required to conduct several headcounts of inmates, as well as “rounds” every 30 minutes. Prosecutors say they filled out paperwork falsely indicating they had fulfilled their duties.
Epstein — a serial abuser of underage girls and women — was found dead in his cell Aug. 10. He was awaiting trial for sex trafficking.
Figgins said a critical part of his defense will be an upcoming report by the Department of Justice watchdog on Epstein’s suicide. It’s unclear when the report will be released, but it’s expected to address widespread failures at the Metropolitan Correctional Center.
The evidence in the case will include hundreds of hours of video footage.
The Lower Manhattan lockup, like the rest of the Bureau of Prisons, has faced chronic staffing shortages and budget woes. Epstein was without a cellmate the night of his suicide, though bureau policies required he have one.
“There is a crisis at MCC New York, and these staff should not be the scapegoats for a crisis they did not create. The Department of Justice must address the true issue here. The staff members were not given tools and resources to perform the job correctly,” said Tyrone Covington, the President of Council of Prisons Local 3148.
Manhattan Federal Judge Analisa Torres denied a request from Foy that Noel be allowed to keep her firearm while awaiting trial. Foy said the correction officer feared the press.
Both correction officers are out on a $100,000 bond.