Jeffrey Epstein’s shadow looms over start of Ghislaine Maxwell’s US trial

When jury selection starts in earnest on Tuesday for British socialite Ghislaine Maxwell’s sex trafficking trial in Manhattan federal court, many observers might think that they will finally learn the full truth about the crimes of her consort, disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein – and any subsequent cover-ups.

On the surface, this conjecture makes sense: Epstein killed himself in jail more than two years ago, while awaiting his own sex trafficking trial, leaving many to wonder whether there would ever be justice for victims.

But when Maxwell was arrested one year after his arrest – for her alleged role in procuring teenage girls for Epstein between 1994 and 2004 – some believed the case would provide a second chance for a full accounting of what Epstein did.

Indeed, some might think that witness testimony, which will include multiple accusers, might provide bombshell details on Epstein’s decades-long sexual abuse of minors and the shadowy network of people who enabled him. Some observers might believe these proceedings will name previously undisclosed names, given that his associates included rich and powerful men from all over the world such as Prince Andrew, Bill Clinton and Bill Gates.

Some are probably awaiting a definitive answer as to why Epstein and Maxwell never faced federal charges in south Florida more than a decade ago, when he was accused of sexually abusing underage girls. The controversial non-prosecution agreement Epstein brokered there with federal authorities included a provision that purportedly protected potential co-conspirators – including Maxwell – raising still more questions about his seeming impunity.

But, as Maxwell’s trial looms, there is a strong chance such hopes might be dashed by the upcoming proceedings.

Ghislaine Maxwell sits at the defense table during a hearing to discuss which expert witnesses will be able to testify at her upcoming sex crimes trial in New York.
Ghislaine Maxwell sits at the defense table during a hearing to discuss which expert witnesses will be able to testify at her upcoming sex crimes trial in New York. Photograph: Jane Rosenberg/Reuters

While allegations against Maxwell are inextricably linked to Epstein’s abuse, it’s all but guaranteed that this trial won’t answer all of the most pervasive questions about him – let alone satisfy the cravings of conspiracy theorists who are convinced of the existence of a global cabal of sexually predatory elites.

Judge Alison Nathan, who is presiding over the case, has made clear that she wants Maxwell’s sex trafficking trial to be about Maxwell’s alleged sex trafficking. Full stop. In several rulings, Nathan has largely prevented this trial from becoming a referendum on authorities’ handling of Epstein, and whether Maxwell is a scapegoat because Epstein escaped earthly justice.

“Jeffrey Epstein is dead. Judge Nathan obviously is concerned about undue prejudice against Ms Maxwell and making sure that she’s going to have a fair trial,” said Moira Penza, a partner at Wilkinson Steklof who, as an assistant US attorney in Brooklyn, successfully prosecuted the NXIVM sex cult case. “This is very much her trial. This is very much not Jeffrey Epstein on trial.”

Because the facts relevant to Maxwell are “damning on their own”, Nathan will likely be very hesitant to permit anything into trial that is “on the cusp of being overly prejudicial”, Penza told the Guardian. (Penza’s comments were in reference to the allegation in prosecutors’ case; her statements are not an opinion on Maxwell’s innocence or guilt.)

Maxwell was arrested on 2 July 2020 at a secluded, luxurious estate in the small town of Bradford, New Hampshire for alleged sex crimes, conspiracy and perjury related to Epstein. Audrey Strauss, then the acting Manhattan US attorney, said Maxwell “played a critical role in helping Epstein to identify, befriend and groom minor victims” and that “in some cases, Maxwell participated in the abuse”.

Maxwell “would try to normalize sexual abuse for a minor victim by, among other things, discussing sexual topics, undressing in front of the victim, being present when a minor victim was undressed, and/or being present for sex acts involving the minor victim and Epstein”, the indictment alleged.

Maxwell tried to conceal her involvement in Epstein’s heinous acts, providing false information “under oath” in civil litigation, the indictment claimed. That litigation was the defamation lawsuit filed against Maxwell by longtime Epstein accuser Virginia Giuffre. She has alleged that Epstein and Maxwell forced her into sex acts with Prince Andrew when she was just 17. Maxwell has maintained her innocence, as has the British royal.

One indicator that Maxwell’s trial would stick to the charged sex crimes came this spring.

The defense had asked for the perjury counts to be tried separately, arguing that they relate to “entirely separate offenses that involve different time periods, different alleged victims, and different substantive charges”. Trying perjury alongside sex crimes counts might spur jurors to convict her on sex crimes charges “based on a false inference of criminal propensity”, her lawyers claimed.

Nathan agreed with them, ordering a separate trial for the perjury counts. She wrote in an April opinion that these counts “would introduce unrelated allegations of sexual abuse, which would potentially expose the jury to evidence that might otherwise not be admissible”.

“In particular, a joint trial would potentially expose the jury to a wider swath of information regarding civil litigation against Epstein that is remote from Maxwell’s charged conduct,” Nathan said. “This presents a significant risk that the jury will cumulate the evidence of the various crimes charged and find guilt when, if considered separately, it would not do so.”

Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell the 2005 Wall Street Concert Series on March 15, 2005 in New York City.
Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell the 2005 Wall Street Concert Series on March 15, 2005 in New York City. Photograph: Patrick McMullan/Getty Images

Nathan has also barred some routes for Maxwell’s lawyers to claim that she’s a surrogate for Epstein, saying at a 1 November proceeding: “The court will exclude much of the evidence outlined in the defense’s papers of the government’s alleged motives for investigating and charging Ms Maxwell.”

Nathan also said she would currently exclude evidence of the non-prosecution agreement, “both its existence and its particular terms”. Maxwell’s defense has argued that the non-prosecution agreement was relevant to pointing out bias and financial interests of two witnesses – including one who received immunity from prosecution under the deal.

While the trial will not answer all questions about Epstein, it would be a mistake to think that he won’t feature prominently.

“Without a doubt, Jeffrey Epstein is going to be a major part of this trial,” Penza remarked, saying of the charges, “When you’re thinking about the bad actors here, obviously you have Jeffrey Epstein as the top and then you have essentially Ghislaine Maxwell as his chief enabler.”

Penza said: “I think where the lines will likely be drawn is that it is going to have to be very directly tied to these victims, and these specific crimes – and not just pulling up everything bad that Jeffrey Epstein ever did.”

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