NEW YORK >> In the weeks leading up to Ghislaine Maxwell’s federal sex trafficking trial in Manhattan, her lawyers have raised issues about the “reprehensible” conditions in her Brooklyn detention facility and the ordeal she undergoes whenever she is brought to court.
They asked to interview FBI agents about previous investigations into her longtime companion, Jeffrey Epstein. They took issue with an expert witness’s planned testimony on sexual abuse. And they asked the federal judge overseeing the trial to preclude federal prosecutors from referring to her accusers as “victims.”
The flurry of recent motions, hearings and rulings has begun to define the playing field for Maxwell’s highly anticipated trial. The jury, whose members began being chosen Tuesday, will hear Maxwell’s accusers testify that she recruited them as minors for sexual acts with Epstein and others, in a trial that is widely seen as a proxy for trying Epstein himself.
Maxwell, 59, the daughter of a British media mogul and once a fixture in New York’s social scene, will be tried on six counts, including transporting minors to engage in criminal sexual activity. She has steadfastly maintained her innocence, and her lawyers have sought to undermine the credibility of her accusers and question the motives of prosecutors — efforts they have indicated they would continue at trial.
Their concern about the use of the term “victim” was rooted in fairness, her lawyers have argued. “In some criminal cases, the parties agree that an accuser was the victim of a crime,” they wrote to Judge Alison J. Nathan this month. “This is not one of those cases. Rather, Maxwell denies that she victimized anyone. And there is ample evidence to support her defense.”
But as with most of the motions filed on Maxwell’s behalf so far, Nathan did not agree. She ruled that prosecutors would be allowed to describe the accusers as “victims” and, in another victory for the U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan, the accusers will be allowed to testify under pseudonyms; courtroom artists are prohibited from sketching their likeness.
The pretrial filings and decisions do not appear to have fundamentally altered the issue at the core of the case.
“The question at trial,” prosecutors wrote, “will be whether the defendant took steps to provide Jeffrey Epstein with access to girls under the age of 18, knowing that Epstein intended to have sexual contact with those girls.”
Epstein, 66, was arrested in July 2019 on sex-trafficking charges. He was found dead in a Manhattan detention center a month later. His death was ruled a suicide. Maxwell’s lawyers have argued that the Manhattan U.S. attorney’s office only pursued her after Epstein’s death, and that they have “effectively punished” her for his death by holding her for nearly 17 months in “overly restrictive conditions.”
Maxwell’s lawyers have also repeatedly questioned the strength of the government’s case. The defense has long argued that the government has built its case on decades-old allegations — the indictment charges criminal activity by Maxwell from 1994 to 2004 — and that her accusers’ statements lack independent corroboration.
Prosecutors, for their part, have asked Nathan to prevent Maxwell’s lawyers from making arguments to the jury about the government’s “motives” for bringing the case, and from introducing evidence about past investigations into Epstein. In a recent court hearing, Nathan said she would block the defense from introducing some evidence about how the investigation was conducted. She also barred Maxwell’s lawyers from introducing evidence about the public outcry and heightened media scrutiny that preceded her arrest.
But the defense has won a few key legal skirmishes.
Maxwell’s lawyers had asked the judge to block the government from having one of its expert witnesses, a clinical psychologist, testify about “grooming” — a strategy predators use to try to break down a potential victim’s resistance to abusive conduct.
Nathan ruled that the expert would be allowed to testify about grooming, a concept she said was “well-accepted in the relevant literature.” But she sided with Maxwell on a narrower point: The expert may not offer her opinion that grooming can be done to facilitate abuse by a third party in what the defense has called “grooming by proxy.”
And although prosecutors have argued in bail hearings that Maxwell was in hiding for months before her arrest, they have indicated they will not argue at her trial that she was trying to evade law enforcement between Epstein’s arrest and her own, court filings show.
Nathan said she would not rule on some matters before the trial begins, such as introducing evidence of other victims.
In recent weeks, prosecutors told the defense that they will argue Maxwell had three co-conspirators: Epstein, and two people whose names have been redacted. Maxwell’s lawyers have objected to evidence about the co-conspirators, saying prosecutors identified them to the defense only weeks before trial. Neither are available to testify, nor have they been granted immunity, Maxwell’s lawyers said.
Despite her repeated bids for release on bail from the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, Maxwell is all but certain to spend the duration of the trial in custody. At a hearing earlier this month, her lawyer, Bobbi C. Sternheim, described how Maxwell had been awakened at 3:45 a.m. and delivered before dawn to the downtown Manhattan courthouse where her trial will be held.
“She had to get on her hands and knees to climb into the van because her leg shackles would not permit her to step up,” Sternheim said. In the courthouse, Maxwell sat in a cold cell block, with little food and no utensils.
In letters to the court, Sternheim elaborated on what she depicted as the mistreatment of her client. She likened the level of surveillance on Maxwell to that of Hannibal Lecter in “The Silence of the Lambs,” saying she was subject to repeated pat searches, regular checks with flashlights and complete isolation.
“Ms. Maxwell is being treated differently than other defendants,” Sternheim wrote. “Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby were permitted to walk into the courthouse each day of their respective trials.”
But Nathan rejected Maxwell’s latest request for release — the fourth time the judge has done so — agreeing with prosecutors that Maxwell’s personal wealth and foreign ties make her a flight risk. Her transportation to the courthouse, Nathan said, should be done “in a way that is humane, proper, and consistent with security protocols.”