The People v. Ghislaine Maxwell: What’s Really on Trial?


Since her arrest in July 2020, Ghislaine Maxwell’s circumstances haven’t changed much, but news about her has been easy to come by. In a Brooklyn federal prison, she has been held without bail on charges including aiding Jeffrey Epstein’s sexual abuse of minors. As she awaited trial, it emerged that she quietly married a tech CEO in 2016; Donald Trump repeatedly and publicly wished her well; and her family and lawyers waged a campaign to raise awareness about the abuses that they claim the Metropolitan Detention Center has inflicted on her, culminating in a complaint to the United Nations this week. 

Over the same period, Epstein’s crimes and his 2019 death while awaiting his own federal trial continued to reverberate. The new owners of his Palm Beach and Manhattan properties sought to justify their purchases; at seemingly regular intervals, one financial executive after another was tarnished by new revelations about their association with him; and new records reported by The New York Times on Tuesday showed how he fed deceptions to correctional officers at a Manhattan federal prison up until his death there, which authorities ruled a suicide.

On Monday, the sprawling saga is meant to come to a head. Nearly 17 months after her arrest and more than two years since Epstein’s death, Maxwell, who has pleaded not guilty on all charges, will face trial in a Southern District of New York federal courtroom. The proceedings appear primed to stir the mixture of lurid detail and extreme wealth that has sustained such interest in her case. What’s harder to say is how all the intrigue will intersect with the narrow legal matters at stake.

When Maxwell was indicted last year, prosecutors claimed that she and Epstein exploited girls as young as 14, and transported them between Epstein’s residences in Manhattan, Palm Beach, and New Mexico in order to facilitate sexual abuse. “To make victims feel indebted to Epstein,” the indictment said, “Maxwell would encourage victims to accept offers of financial assistance from Epstein, including offers to pay for travel or educational expenses.”

The socialite’s status and influence could have some bearing on prosecutors’ central claim about how Maxwell lured and groomed girls. At the request of Maxwell’s lawyers, Bloomberg reported last week, U.S. District Judge Alison Nathan asked candidates during jury selection, “Do you have any opinion about people who are wealthy or have luxurious lifestyles that might make it difficult for you to be fair and impartial?” According to the outlet, a man who works in private equity told Nathan that his job might be an obstacle: “My main concern is that, given the number of high-profile individuals who are in P.E. and finance that have been implicated, given my proximity to these individuals, that’s my biggest fear.”

On the other hand, the vast questions that still surround Epstein and Maxwell seem unlikely to be resolved within the strictures of trial proceedings. During a recent pretrial hearing, prosecutors said the government never offered Maxwell a plea deal and that she never sought one, dashing whatever speculation that she might soon provide information on the many powerful men who are alleged to have played some role in Epstein’s sex trafficking ring. As my colleague Gabriel Sherman wrote this week, “I was hopeful the Maxwell trial would finally, and definitively, solve the Epstein mystery. But now, I am not optimistic.”

For Maxwell’s part, her lawyers have tried to play the publicity to her benefit. “Based on widespread coverage of her extraordinary and miserable conditions of pretrial detention, unsworn ‘jurors’ likely believe sentence has already been imposed,” they wrote last month in a failed petition for private questioning of potential jurors, adding, “The fact that a woman now stands trial for charges almost exclusively alleged against men heightens the interest and intrigue of this case.”

At her recent court dates, Maxwell hasn’t appeared particularly bothered, blowing kisses to her family in the courtroom on one occasion. Over the past year-plus, that’s generally been the extent of what can be gleaned from her sporadic appearances, which typically stream for journalists and observers in another room of the courthouse due to coronavirus restrictions. But a gradual revelation of erratic behavior has unfolded nonetheless. In arguing against bail for Maxwell, prosecutors pointed out that she tried to “evade detection” prior to her arrest by wrapping her phone in tinfoil. Her former security chief recently said that his team hired a Maxwell doppelgänger to walk around Paris in an effort to misdirect media attention.

If Maxwell’s trial does not solve a saga, it may offer a more forensic accounting of her M.O. “You have done nothing wrong and I would urge you to start acting like it,” Epstein wrote in a 2015 email to Maxwell that was unsealed in late July of last year. “Go outside, head high, not as an escaping convict. Go to parties. Deal with it.” (Maxwell had previously claimed that she hadn’t been in contact with Epstein for more than a decade prior to his death.)



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