Victims of sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein are finally getting their day in court. The long-awaited trial of British socialite Ghislaine Maxwell begins Monday in Manhattan.
Prosecutors allege that Maxwell, 59, was a central figure in Epstein’s sex criminal enterprise, helping him recruit and sexually abuse girls in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Epstein, 66, was found dead in his Manhattan jail cell in August 2019 while awaiting trial on similar federal charges. His death was ruled a suicide, although his brother has said he doesn’t believe Epstein killed himself.
For Epstein’s accusers — many of whom were in Palm Beach, where he maintained a mansion — the trial of Maxwell is the culmination of a decade-long crusade to force federal prosecutors to first arrest Epstein and now hold one of his top associates accountable.
While Epstein and Maxwell have been universally vilified on social media, the case is not a slam-dunk for prosecutors, who face several obstacles in proving guilt. Maxwell’s family contends that she, too, was a victim who was exploited by Epstein and is now being unjustly tried for crimes that he committed.
One of the biggest challenges for prosecutors is time: more than two decades have passed since the alleged abuse occurred. Maxwell, whose wealth has been assessed at more than $20 million, has marshaled her considerable resources in an effort to destroy their case.
Defense lawyers have lined up a team of high-priced experts to testify about the psychological aspects of victimization and such topics as the science of memory, grooming, post-traumatic stress disorder and the “halo effect” — a tendency for positive impressions of a person in one area to positively influence one’s opinion or feelings in other areas — all intended to cast doubt in the minds of the jurors.
The daughter of the late British media baron Robert Maxwell, Ghislaine Maxwell was once a fixture on the New York social scene who possessed a Rolodex of names and direct phone numbers to former presidents, world leaders, billionaires and celebrities. In addition to being his girlfriend, Maxwell functioned as as one of Epstein’s recruiters, victims say, luring women and underage girls to his opulent homes around the world, including in Palm Beach, Manhattan, the Virgin Islands and New Mexico, to engage in massages that turned into sex acts. Sometimes she joined in the sex, the accusers allege.
Four women have been cited as victims in the indictment, two of whom were 14 when they were allegedly sexually abused. The judge has yet to decide whether evidence will be introduced at trial about other accusers.
At least two other women (who are not part of this case) have publicly claimed that they were trafficked by Epstein and Maxwell to powerful and wealthy men, including Prince Andrew and Harvard lawyer Alan Dershowitz. Both men have denied the allegations, and it’s not clear whether those women will testify.
It also remains to be seen whether any names of other powerful men will be revealed during the case. At least one of Epstein’s alleged co-conspirators is scheduled to testify. Prosecutors have made clear that the case will not focus on people who were a part of Epstein’s alleged sex trafficking enterprise — other than Maxwell.
Epstein’s so-called “black book” of famous people, which prosecutors say was compiled by Maxwell, will be presented as evidence against her, although U.S. Circuit Court Judge Alison Nathan has said she will not allow the case to turn into an exercise in naming individuals not directly connected to the charges in the indictment.
Maxwell’s legal team has filed a flurry of legal motions in recent weeks focused on undermining the credibility of the accusers and portraying them as consenting to sex in exchange for money.
“Depending on the age of the accusers during the time frame of the conspiracy, consent may be an appropriate and viable defense,’’ Maxwell’s attorneys said in one motion, noting that in Florida at the time the crimes were allegedly committed, “individuals under the age of 18 could be charged with commission of the crime of prostitution.”
Maxwell’s team has succeeded in convincing Nathan to instruct jurors to narrowly consider the testimony of two of the accusers, who were above the age of consent in the jurisdictions where the alleged crimes occurred: London and New Mexico.
They have also argued that the four accusers had a financial incentive to accuse Maxwell — to improve their payouts from a compensation fund for victims of Epstein. They have subpoenaed the administrator of the fund for information about the women over the objection of prosecutors.
Maxwell’s attorneys, however, were unsuccessful in persuading the judge to block prosecutors from calling the women “victims.”
The judge also rejected Maxwell’s bid to call psychiatrist Ryan C.W. Hall as an expert witness. While portions of his expected testimony were heavily redacted from court filings, Hall was one of the psychiatrists hired by Epstein in 2009 to evaluate a number of accusers who sued him in civil court. Hall conducted an interview with “victim No. 4” over a decade ago, and Maxwell’s attorneys had hoped to use his evaluation to discredit that accuser.
Maxwell’s trial comes almost three years to the day after the publication of “Perversion of Justice,” a Miami Herald investigation that detailed how Epstein and his team of high-profile attorneys manipulated the criminal justice system, allowing him to escape federal prosecution. Despite the FBI having evidence that he sexually assaulted at least 34 girls, Epstein served just 13 months in the Palm Beach county jail on charges that he solicited one minor.
The Herald’s series led federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York to take a new look at the case, and Epstein was arrested in July 2019. In the ensuing fallout from the Herald series, the prosecutor in charge of the 2005 case, Alexander Acosta, resigned as secretary of labor under then-president Donald Trump. Several CEOs who associated with Epstein have retired or other otherwise stepped down from their leadership roles.
Despite Epstein’s death, the federal probe into his alleged crimes continued, and in July 2020, Maxwell was arrested at her home on a 156-property in rural New Hampshire that had been purchased months earlier through an anonymous shell company. Maxwell had toured the home under a pseudonym.
Maxwell has been denied bail four times as prosecutors successfully argued that her wealth and British citizenship make her a flight risk. She has been closely monitored during the 15 months she has been behind bars at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Brooklyn. She and her attorneys have repeatedly complained that conditions in the jail are inhumane, including a practice by staff of shining flashlights at her at night, disturbing her sleep.
Jill Steinberg, a former assistant U.S. attorney and Justice Department official who handled cases of child exploitation, said the trial will be a test of how jurors weigh evidence involving sexual abuse in the “Me Too” era.
“There is more of an awareness of victimization and why people become victims,” said Steinberg, who is now in private practice.
She said a defense strategy that hinges on maligning the minor victims or portraying them as consenting to the sexual activities in exchange for money may backfire.
“The fact is that they are minors and it doesn’t matter whether they consented or not,” she said.
The trial is expected to last six weeks. Unlike other high-profile trials, it will not be televised because cameras are generally not permitted in U.S. federal courtrooms.
The Maxwell charges
▪ Enticement and conspiracy to entice minors to travel to engage in illegal sex acts.
▪ Enticement of a minor to travel to engage in illegal sex acts.
▪ Conspiracy to transport minors with intent to engage in criminal sex activity.
▪ Transportation of a minor with intent to engage in criminal sex activity.
▪ Sex trafficking.
▪ Two counts of perjury (these charges will be tried separately and are not part of the current case).