NEW YORK – After disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein died by suicide behind bars, a judge invited his accusers to court to vent their anger at a man they called a coward for taking his own life to escape accountability for sexually abusing them.
The coming weeks will still see, in a way, Epstein prosecuted by proxy: his former girlfriend, Ghislaine Maxwell, will stand trial in Manhattan federal court. Some of his accusers, identified in court by pseudonyms or first names, will get a chance to play a key role as government witnesses.
Maxwell, 59, has pleaded not guilty to charges she groomed underage victims to have unwanted sex with Epstein. She has vehemently denied wrongdoing.
“I have not committed any crime,” the jailed Maxwell blurted out at a recent pretrial conference. She was made to wear shackles coming and going from the courtroom, accentuating the severity of the allegations — although the restraints were gone at a hearing last week.
The questioning of jurors by Judge Alison J. Nathan begins Tuesday as a pool of over 600 potential jurors is whittled down to 12 — and six alternates — just before opening statements start Nov. 29 in Maxwell's highly anticipated trial.
Epstein, who died at 66, was arrested on multiple sex trafficking charges in New York in 2019. His lawyers contended the charges violated a 2008 non-prosecution deal with federal prosecutors in Miami that secretly ended a federal sex abuse probe involving at least 40 teenage girls. After pleading guilty to state charges in Florida instead, he spent 13 months in jail and paid settlements to victims.
The New York case took a shocking turn when Epstein killed himself while awaiting trial two years ago.
After his death, prosecutors turned their sights on Maxwell. The wealthy, Oxford-educated British socialite was the daughter of British publishing magnate Robert Maxwell, who died in 1991 after falling off his yacht — named the Lady Ghislaine — near the Canary Islands while facing allegations he'd illegally looted his businesses' pension funds.
Behind the scenes of a lavish lifestyle, prosecutors say, Maxwell seized the role of satisfying Epstein's proclivity for luring young victims into “sexualized massages." They plan to show jurors a picture of Maxwell and Epstein swimming nude together to illustrate their close relationship.
The trial’s drama will revolve around testimony from four women who say they and others were victimized as teens from 1994 to 2004 at Epstein’s estate in Palm Beach, Florida, his posh Manhattan townhouse and at other residences in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and London.
Prosecutors say there’s evidence Maxwell knew that the victims, including a 14-year-old, were below the age of consent and arranged travel for some between Epstein’s homes. Defense lawyers are still trying to reduce or eliminate the testimony of one of the four because she was 17 at the time in a jurisdiction where that wasn’t legally underage.
And prosecutors this past weekend asked the judge to let them reveal to the jury statements Epstein made to an employee about Maxwell's involvement with procuring underage girls.
The indictment said 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 Epstein and Maxwell cases have fueled a cottage industry of podcasts and documentaries, like Netflix's “Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich," as well as conspiracy theories and conjecture.
Reports that investigators seized Maxwell’s address books have sparked speculation that the trial could explore Epstein’s connections to Prince Andrew, former President Bill Clinton and former O.J. Simpson lawyer Alan Dershowitz. But the judge has made clear there will be no name-dropping at trial, saying only certain pages of an address book — showing a section naming the alleged victims under the heading “massage” — will come into evidence.
And she blocked prosecutors' attempt to introduce emails they said would show Maxwell tried select women for other men, saying she was using her access to women “as a form of social currency with other influential men with whom she sought to ingratiate herself.”
Epstein’s name, however, is expected to come up frequently, and Maxwell's lawyers have complained that Maxwell has already suffered from the negative publicity surrounding him. A questionnaire used to screen potential jurors inquired whether they had ever posted anything or an opinion about Maxwell or Epstein on social media.
The defense has signaled it wants to portray Maxwell as a victim of sorts.
“Jeffrey Epstein was a brilliant man who was flawed by enduring personality traits familiar to psychiatrists,” her lawyers said in a recent court filing. “Like many people who achieve great power and wealth, Jeffery Epstein exploited the ‘Halo effect’ to surround himself with people who would serve his needs.”
Nathan has four times rejected Maxwell's bail requests, noting the ease with which the holder of U.S., French and British citizenships could use wealth and global connections to flee.
The judge also questioned Maxwell's integrity, saying that she told authorities after her July 2020 arrest that she possessed around $3.5 million in assets, when she later admitted controlling $22.5 million with her husband.
In a letter to Nathan last week, defense lawyer Bobbi Sternheim said her client “is eager for her day in court.”
Maxwell "looks forward to her trial and to walking out of the courthouse uncuffed and unshackled following her acquittal,” wrote the lawyer who has repeatedly complained about Maxwell's jail conditions, contending Maxwell's been punished for Epstein's suicide by guards who shine a light into her cell every 15 minutes and treat her harshly.
At a hearing last year where Maxwell was denied bail, some Epstein accusers made clear they believe she was equally culpable.
One called Maxwell “a sexual predator who groomed and abused me and countless other children and young women.” In a statement read aloud by a prosecutor, another said, “Without Ghislaine, Jeffrey could not have done what he did.”