Ghislaine Maxwell was alternately described as a “predator” who enabled Jeffrey Epstein’s sexual abuse of underage girls and a woman wrongly blamed for the sins of a man, as the British socialite’s criminal trial started in a New York court on Monday.
Maxwell, her face masked because of Covid-19 restrictions, sat impassively as the government previewed a case that will determine whether she spends decades behind bars or is freed after months of confinement in a six-foot by nine-foot prison cell.
It is also likely to offer the fullest accounting so far of the Epstein scandal. The sex offender was found hanged in his jail cell in August 2019, a month after he was arrested for trafficking dozens of young women for sexual abuse at his mansions in Manhattan and Palm Beach.
In their opening argument, the prosecution depicted Maxwell as Epstein’s “closest assistant” who was involved in every detail of his life. That included luring vulnerable girls to his residences to give massages that were, in fact, sexual abuse sessions, prosecutors said.
“She preyed on young girls, manipulated them and served them up to be sexually abused,” said Lara Pomerantz, a prosecutor for the southern district of New York. “That is what this trial is about.”
Maxwell, 59, the daughter of the late British publishing baron and embezzler, Robert Maxwell, delivered the young women to Epstein, according to prosecutors, in order to maintain her own access to the luxurious lifestyle that he provided. She also participated in some of the abuse, they added.
Maxwell was essential, they argued, because she made the girls comfortable in Epstein’s presence and lent him respectability, pushing their relationship from innocent diversions, such as shopping and movies, into darker territory.
Maxwell faces more than 70 years in prison if convicted on all counts. The charges against her include sex trafficking, sex trafficking conspiracy and charges related to facilitating the travel of minors for sexual acts.
The government’s case is expected to revolve around the testimony of four women who were victims of Epstein. Pomerantz said Epstein and Maxwell met one, a girl named Jane, when she was 14, approaching her at a picnic at a performing arts camp before striking up a conversation about her native Florida.
“What she didn’t know then is that this man and woman were predators . . . targeting her for sexual abuse that would last for years,” said Pomerantz, adding that Maxwell “knew exactly what she was doing”.
In addition to the victims’ testimony, the government also promised to present flight logs from Epstein’s private jets and items found inside his massage rooms, including pictures of naked women and a schoolgirl outfit.
But the defence countered that the case would not hold up to scrutiny and that Maxwell was being scapegoated for someone else’s misdeeds. “The charges against Ghislaine Maxwell are for things that Jeffrey Epstein did. But she is not Jeffrey Epstein,” said her attorney, Bobbi Sternheim, calling him “the proverbial elephant in the room”.
Sternheim described Epstein as “a bright fascinating man with wide-ranging interests” — but one who lived a compartmentalised life in which even those closest to him were not allowed to see certain facets.
In a potentially risky strategy, she also hammered at the credibility of the four women, claiming their accusations were motivated by a desire to win millions of dollars in payments from a victims’ compensation fund that was established after Epstein’s death. Testifying for the prosecution strengthened those claims, she said.
“Pay particular attention to those four accusers,” Sternheim urged jurors, arguing that they had been influenced by sensational media reports, unscrupulous lawyers “and by money — big bucks”.
The trial is expected to last six weeks. It is being conducted in a courtroom with pandemic-era modifications, including a plexi-glass encased witness stand with its own high-efficiency particulate air filter.
The Oxford-educated Maxwell became a well-known fixture on the Manhattan social scene when she arrived from London in the mid-1990s. She was Epstein’s girlfriend and then became the manager of his various properties in Palm Beach, Manhattan, Santa Fe, New Mexico and on a private Caribbean island.
Even after his death, Epstein has continued to create ructions in the worlds in which he travelled: high finance, academia, and politics. Earlier this month, Jes Staley, the chief executive of Barclays, stepped down following the conclusion of a regulatory investigation into how he characterised his relationship with the disgraced financier.
Associations with Epstein have also damaged the reputations of Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and private equity executive Leon Black, among others, while effectively forcing Britain’s Prince Andrew to step back from his royal duties. All have denied any inappropriate behaviour.
The Maxwell trial is being closely followed to see if it will shed further light on those and other Epstein relationships with a unique collection of powerful men.
The trial is expected to explore in detail the way that Maxwell and Epstein allegedly preyed on their victims — first recruiting girls themselves, according to the government, and later encouraging those girls to recruit others.
Pomerantz said: “They devised a pyramid scheme of abuse.”