Ghislaine Maxwell trial: Spectre of Jeffrey Epstein looms large over socialite’s trial

Ghislaine Maxwell may be the sole defendant, but she was not the only on trial

Bevan Hurley
Thurgood Marshall United States Courthouse, Manhattan
Wednesday 29 December 2021 22:52
Ghislaine Maxwell Sex Trafficking Trial Officially Underway

Early on in her opening argument, US attorney Lara Pomerantz pointed directly at Ghislaine Maxwell from a plastic see-through box in the centre of a Manhattan federal courtroom, lest there was any doubt in the jury’s mind who was responsible for the horrific sexual crimes she was describing.

Ms Maxwell, the 59-year-old British socialite, multi-millionaire and former confidante to princes and billionaires, may have been the sole defendant charged with grooming and trafficking underage girls for sex, but she was not the only on trial.

The spectre of Jeffrey Epstein, who died by suicide only a few hundred yards from where the trial is taking place in a cell in the Metropolitan Correctional Center in August 2019, loomed large over the opening arguments on Monday.

“The defendant and Epstein,” was a phrase uttered more than a dozen times during Ms Pomerantz’s 30-minute opening statement, as she wove a tale of depravity and manipulation executed by two apparently equal partners.

US Attorney Lara Pomerantz gives her opening prosecution statement while pointing to defendant Ghislaine Maxwell

The jury returned a guilty verdict on 29 December, convicting Maxwell of five of the six charges against her in the trial.

Girls as young as 14 were lured into Epstein’s orbit by Ms Maxwell with promises of scholarships, mentoring, and donations so they could chase their dreams, according to the prosecution.

A young girl named Jane was targeted at an arts camp when she was just 14. Another, in a car park after being spotted by Ms Maxwell, who told her driver to stop the car so she approach the girl.

The abuse followed a similar pattern, Ms Pomerantz alleged. Ms Maxwell would usually befriend the girls, talk to them about sexually explicit subjects, and then use massage as a pretext to lure them into sexual abuse, the prosecution told the court.

The alleged sexual abuse and trafficking occurred between 1994 and 2004 in Epstein’s palatial properties, from Manhattan’s Upper East Side, to his waterside mansion in Palm Beach, Florida, his private hideaway in the US Virgin Islands and his ranch in Sante Fe, New Mexico.

Ms Maxwell was an “older, purportedly respectable woman” who would put the girls at ease and make them feel safe, “so they could be molested by a middle-aged man”, Ms Pomerantz said.

Ms Maxwell “preyed on and manipulated” the victims and “served them up to be sexually abused”, Ms Pomerantz said.

“There were times when she was in the room when it happened,” the prosecutor added.

Ghislaine Maxwell sits at the defense table during final stages of jury selection on Monday

Epstein and Ms Maxwell enjoyed a “personal, intimate relationship” in the 1990s, and after their romantic liaison ended became “the best of friends”, Ms Pomerantz told the jury.

Ms Maxwell later became “the lady of the house”, managing Epstein’s properties and enforcing a strict “code of silence” among staff.

“They were partners in crime. They had a playbook,” she said.

Together, they often targeted young girls from “difficult home lives” with single parents.

“They made these girls feel seen, they made these girls feel special,” she said.

“The defendant and Epstein were wealthy, powerful and well-connected, and they flaunted it.”

The offending later graduated into a “pyramid scheme of abuse”, where vulnerable girls already in Epstein’s payroll would encourage their friends and classmates to come to his homes for sexualised massages, and be given $100 bills in return.

Throughout the opening arguments, Ms Maxwell was relaxed and attentive. Wearing a cashmere turtleneck, black pants and black low-heeled shoes, she conferred frequently with her team of four lawyers, passing notes and writing busily, while maintaining a calm demeanour.

She has denied all the charges.

Queues began forming outside Thurgood Marshall United States Courthouse in downtown Manhattan from before 5am.

For the defense, Bobbi Sternheim opened her statement by saying the case was about three things: “memory, manipulation and money.”

Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell were ‘partners in crime’, prosecutors said

She said her client had become a “scapegoat” for Epstein’s crimes and that the four accusers had sought to “reframe their stories for a payday” from a fund set up by the dead millionaire’s estate.

All four had received payouts ranging from $1.5m to over $3m from the victim’s fund, and their civil claims had been enhanced by their willingness to testify for the government, Ms Sternheim said.

Prosecutors made a string of objections over Ms Sternheim’s opening statements, and Judge Nathan eventually called counsel to her bench to confer.

Ms Sternheim went on to describe Epstein as a “21st Century James Bond”.

“He was... a mysterious man, without attachment. No wife, no children, no boss. He attracted all of these rich, powerful, famous people, before and after his fall from grace in around 2005.”

He was an eccentric who radiated a “halo effect” to attract wealthy politicians, scientists and businesspeople with his charisma, she said.

Epstein was a continual presence throughout the trial as prosecutors called four accusers who said they had been sexually abused by the late paedophile.

Government exhibits showed the pair pictured together in exoticlocations around the world; at the Queen’s Balmoral estate in Scotland, in St Tropez, and of Ms Maxwell massaging Epstein’s feet with her breasts.

During closing arguments, Alison Moe again placed Ms Maxwell at the centre of Epstein’s crimes.

She had been his “right hand” in allegedly enabling the abuse that had caused “lasting damage” to the women, who had been teenagers when the offending had started.

Maxwell gives Epstein a massage as he sits ext to Jean-Luc Brunel

“When you are with someone for 11 years you know what they like. Epstein liked underage girls. He liked to touch underage girls,” Ms Moe told the jury.

“Maxwell knew it. Make no mistake, Maxwell was crucial to the whole scheme. Epstein could not have done this alone.”

She raised earlier testimony from a JP Morgan executive who gave evidence that Ms Maxwell had received $30.7 million in payments from Epstein.

For the defence, Laura Menninger countered that her client was unfairly being punished for Epstein’s crimes.

She added that Epstein was a “master manipulator” and in reality, Ms Maxwell was another one of his victims.

“We are not here to defend Jeffrey Epstein, he is not my client,” she said.

“Ghislaine Maxwell is not Jeffrey Epstein.”

A jury has spent more than 30 hours deliberating to decide whether Ms Maxwell should be convicted of six charges.

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