On Monday morning, crowds lined up by the dozens in front of the Thurgood Marshall U.S. Courthouse for New York’s Southern District in Downtown Manhattan, eager to witness the beginning of one of the most anticipated trials of the year. Ghislaine Maxwell, former romantic partner, employee, and alleged procurer for the late, disgraced financier and sexual predator Jeffrey Epstein, stands accused of helping him sexually groom underage girls — charges that could net her up to 80 years in prison. Attendees included members of the public, journalists, and some accusers of Epstein.
Federal Judge Alison Nathan, speaking from behind a mask, presided over the proceedings. Opening arguments started around 2 p.m. with Assistant U.S. Attorney Lara Elizabeth Pomerantz presenting the prosecution’s case, which is poised to hinge largely on testimony by four victims who accuse Maxwell of grooming them for abuse by Epstein between 1994 and 2004, when some were minors. “I want to tell you about a young girl named Jane,” she said, before going into the details of one of the three Jane Does expected to testify during the trial. Pomerantz described Maxwell approaching Jane with Epstein at a summer arts camp where Jane was just 14 years old at the time. The pair befriended Jane before abusing her, prosecution claimed, a pattern the State says they repeated with their other alleged victims.
Pomerantz said Maxwell played an essential role in abusing young girls, saying she “manipulated them and served them up to be sexually abused,” and describing her as Epstein’s “closest associate and second in command” and the two of them as “partners in crime.” Maxwell lent Epstein’s patterns of abuse a “cover of respectability,” because she was an adult woman, Pomerantz argued. Epstein and Maxwell took girls shopping and to the movies, she said, before introducing sexual topics in conversation and then asking the girls to massage Epstein, an enticement Pomerantz described as an “excuse,” a “cover,” and a “ruse” to get young girls to touch Epstein, after which he would touch them sexually or even have intercourse with them. Pomerantz said Maxwell was motivated to satiate Epstein’s sexual desires in order to maintain the lavish lifestyle she lived thanks to him. Maxwell and Epstein later devised a “pyramid scheme of abuse,” Pomerantz continued, whereby they asked victims to recruit other young girls for so-called massages, paying them a finders fee for supplying new abuse victims. And Maxwell, Pomerantz said, was unrepentant. “She knew exactly what she was doing,” she said. “She was dangerous; she was setting young girls up to be molested by a predator.“
Pomerantz said jurors would hear from victims and their relatives in the coming trial, along with testimony from former employees of Epstein including pilots of his private plane and staff from his Palm Beach residence on the “culture of silence” Maxwell cultivated while managing the property. Law enforcement witnesses will share details from their searches of Epstein’s properties in Florida and New York, and the jury will see evidence recovered including massage tables and a schoolgirl outfit. Pomerantz added that flight logs and FedEx records of gifts delivered, among other documents, will corroborate witnesses’ testimony.
Attorney Bobbi Sternheim spoke for the defense saying Maxwell was being blamed unfairly for Epstein’s crimes. “Ever since Eve was accused of tempting Adam with the apple, women have been blamed for men’s bad behavior,” she said. She adamantly characterized Maxwell as a “scapegoat,” and a “convenient stand-in” for Epstein since his death, both terms which the prosecution objected to but was overruled.
Sternheim continued, calling into question the reliability of the testimony the jury would hear. She said that the court would hear from accusers who would share memories from more than a quarter century ago. Those memories, she argued, had faded over time, been corrupted by the media, and influenced by the desire for money. (The defense plans to call a false memory expert as a witness.) She noted that each accuser testifying has received money from a fund Epstein’s estate set up to compensate his alleged victims.
She described herself and the rest of Maxwell’s defense team as “proud” to represent her, noting that she has many good qualities the jury hasn’t heard yet and that her client has been unfairly pigeonholed as “the rich girl” and socialite. “She’s well-educated, well-traveled, a graduate of Oxford,” who can “pilot a helicopter” and speaks several languages, Sternheim said. She told the jury they’d been cautioned not to be biased against affluence and opulence, adding that it is not a crime to come from a rich and privileged background. She also painted Maxwell as a victim of Epstein’s manipulations, saying he compartmentalized what he shared with her about his life.
During the first half of the day, Judge Nathan had finalized a diverse group of 12 jurors and six alternates. For the last two weeks, 231 potential jurors were paraded in front of prosecution and defense after being narrowed down from more than 600 using a written questionnaire. One question that kept surfacing was that of exposure to the case — defense clearly worried that she was already guilty in the eyes of many onlookers, and sought to find jurors who could be deemed impartial.
So far, the arguments we’ve seen in court mirror what was expected, based on pre-trial filings: the defense will argue that Maxwell is being tried as a proxy for her former lover, Epstein, and his crimes, rather than her own. They will call into question the reliability of the accusers, and question whether a third party can participate in “grooming” an individual for sexual assault. For its part, the prosecution indicated that they will argue Epstein had two additional co-conspirators besides Maxwell, though this did not come up during opening statements.
The question remains whether Maxwell will take the stand in her own defense, a move that would expose her to cross-examination by prosecutors but gives the defendant — a woman known for her charisma and confidence — the chance to tell the story her way.
Immediately after the arguments concluded, prosecution called their first witness, a former pilot for Epstein’s planes. The trial is expected to last six weeks.