Ghislaine Maxwell in the dock for the most explosive trial of the decade

·6-min read
 (REUTERS)
(REUTERS)

At 9.30am New York time today, a woman known as inmate 02879-509 walked into courtroom 318 of the federal court in Manhattan. With US Marshals standing guard she stood to face distinguished judge Alison Nathan and confirm her name: Ghislaine Maxwell.

What will happen over the next six weeks of Maxwell’s trial will determine the fate of a woman who is either the victim of an appalling act of prosecutorial mistreatment or one of the most notorious child sex traffickers in modern times, depending on who you believe. Prosecutors claim that Maxwell was the top recruiter of underage girls for Jeffrey Epstein, the late billionaire paedophile she once dated. Maxwell claims she has been made a “substitute” for Epstein after he hanged himself in a New York prison in 2019, while awaiting trial on sex trafficking charges.

The trial is a mixture of power, sex and scandal which has spawned dozens of documentaries, podcasts, books and millions of words of newsprint. At the centre of it all is Maxwell, 59, the British socialite and daughter of the late and disgraced newspaper tycoon Robert Maxwell. In the Nineties and early 2000s, the period that covers her alleged criminality, she was friends with Prince Andrew and flew round the world with Bill Clinton and Donald Trump.

On the stand: Ghislaine Maxwell (AP)
On the stand: Ghislaine Maxwell (AP)

Mark Bederow, a New York criminal defence lawyer, said that Maxwell will have to “distance herself from Epstein as much as possible”. “Maxwell’s lawyers are going to have to argue that the accusers are not credible but they have to do it in a way that doesn’t look like they are revictimising them to the jury. It’s a delicate exercise. Then there’s the question of how could she not know what was going on? The defence is going to have to tap dance its way through that minefield. They are going to have a hell of a task to get her off.”

Since her arrest in July last year Maxwell has led a far less glamorous life than she has been used to, in the Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC) in Brooklyn. Maxwell’s lawyers have complained about her being woken up every 15 minutes with a torch by guards. In an interview from her cell, Maxwell joked about befriending the rats and food that looked like it had been “nuked”. Last week her attorneys filed a petition with the UN about her mistreatment and her brother Ian said the jury has been “poisoned” by the avalanche of bad press.

On trial: Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell (AP)
On trial: Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell (AP)

Ironically, Maxwell has looked the best she has in months at recent pre-trial hearings. She has got rid of her prison-issue blue outfit, replaced with grey trousers and a black roll-neck. She has dyed the grey out of her roots and done a decent job of cutting it into a shoulder-length bob. She has seemed relaxed in court and affectionate towards her lawyers, yet it remains to be seen if she will be so at ease once the case opens. Nigel Cawthorne, the author of Ghislaine Maxwell: Decline and Fall of Manhattan’s Most Famous Socialite, would not rule out Maxwell giving evidence in her defence because she has “inherited some of her father’s arrogance and the feeling she is untouchable... she is a smooth operator.”

Prosecuting the case are four Assistant US Attorneys from the Southern District of New York. They are Maurene Comey, the daughter of ex-FBI head James Comey, who was fired by Trump; Lara Pomerantz; Alison Moe; and Andrew Rohrbach. Maxwell’s lawyers include Christian Everdell, a former prosecutor in the Southern District who helped put away Mexican drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, and Laura Menninger and Jeff Pagliuca, both Denver-based lawyers who represented Maxwell during civil lawsuits filed against her. The last team member is Bobbi Sternheim, a “Super Lawyer” who has fought numerous death row cases and defended Osama bin Laden’s London spokesman.

Legal filings have indicated that Maxwell has set aside £5 million for legal fees and has sold her £1.7 million mews house in Belgravia to pay them. Overseeing the case will be Judge Nathan, who became the second openly gay judge to serve on the federal bench when she was appointed in 2013.

The six formal charges indicate that Maxwell is not on trial for allegedly abusing the women: the trial will focus on her alleged role as a recruiter and trafficker. The defendant’s alleged criminality runs from 1994 to 2004 and includes conspiracy to entice minors to travel to engage in illegal sex acts. Other charges include conspiracy to transport minors with intent to engage in criminal sexual activity, sex trafficking conspiracy and sex trafficking of a minor. Two counts of perjury will be tried later.

The trial will take the jury back to the opulent lifestyle that Maxwell led with Epstein, who was said to be worth £433 million when he died. But all the glamour and jet-setting, prosecutors claim, was a smokescreen for Epstein’s insatiable appetite for underage girls supplied by Maxwell.

Powerplayers: Ghislaine Maxwell, Jeffery Epstein and Bill Clinton (William J. Clinton Presidential Library)
Powerplayers: Ghislaine Maxwell, Jeffery Epstein and Bill Clinton (William J. Clinton Presidential Library)

The allegations in the indictment include claims from Annie Farmer, the only woman who has publicly identified herself. She alleges that in 1996 when she was 16, Maxwell helped lure her to Epstein’s ranch in New Mexico where she and Epstein sexually assaulted her. Minor Victim 1 claims she first met Epstein and Maxwell when she was 14 and was repeatedly abused. The third accuser, understood to be British, alleges she was recruited at 17 around 1994 in London and “groomed” by Maxwell for sexualised massages with Epstein. Minor Victim 4 claims she was recruited at 14 and trafficked for sex with Epstein between 2001 and 2004. She alleges Maxwell gave her gifts like lingerie to groom her. Among the others giving evidence will be Adriana Ross, a Polish ex-model and former Epstein employee expected to speak about her role in his sex trafficking operation.

Pre-trial filings have indicated that Maxwell’s defence is likely to involve attacking the women’s credibility, a risky tactic that was attempted by Harvey Weinstein in his 2020 trial for rape and sexual assault. He ended up with a jail term of 23 years. Nevertheless, Maxwell has hired the same defence expert as Weinstein, Elizabeth Loftus.

Loftus is a cognitive psychologist specialising in the unreliability of memory. Maxwell’s team is requesting detailed documents from the compensation fund set up for Epstein’s victims which paid £93 million to 135 women. In a court filing last year Maxwell’s lawyers said Farmer’s “newly asserted memories of abuse” were “not based on the truth or a desire for ‘justice’ so much as her desire for cash”. If such tactics backfire then Maxwell faces 80 years in jail.

Whatever happens, the verdict will be watched all over the world, with royalty and two former presidents — Clinton and Trump — hoping they don’t get dragged in. The stakes are high and both sides know that over the next few weeks history will be made.

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