The much-anticipated sex crimes trial of Ghislaine Maxwell, the British socialite charged with grooming underage girls for late financier Jeffrey Epstein, is set to begin Monday before a packed federal courthouse in Manhattan.
The 59-year-old daughter of the late newspaper baron Robert Maxwell faces an effective life sentence if convicted in New York of sex trafficking minors for Epstein, her former lover who killed himself in prison over two years ago.
Following the death of Epstein – a multi-million-dollar money manager who befriended countless celebrities, including Britain’s Prince Andrew – prosecutors vowed to pursue co-conspirators, resulting in Maxwell’s arrest in July 2020.
She has since been held at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn – where she has complained of unsanitary and inhumane conditions – under rigorous surveillance that one of her lawyers compared to that surrounding serial killer Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs.
Maxwell’s alleged crimes occurred between 1994 and 2004, and relate to four unnamed women, including two who say they were just 14 and 15 years old when they were sexually abused.
Prosecutors say Maxwell befriended girls with shopping and movie theater trips, later coaxing them into giving Epstein nude massages at his various residences, during which he would engage in sex acts before giving them money.
US government attorneys say Maxwell sometimes participated in the alleged abuse, at her London home and at Epstein’s properties in New Mexico, Manhattan and Palm Beach, Florida.
Epstein died aged 66 in a Manhattan jail in August 2019 while awaiting trial on child sex trafficking charges, in what New York’s official coroner ruled a suicide.
The 12 jurors and six alternates who will decide Maxwell’s fate will be officially seated Monday. The trial, taking place in the Thurgood Marshall US courthouse in lower Manhattan, is expected to continue into mid-January.
Maxwell has pleaded not guilty to all six counts, which include sex trafficking of a minor, and faces up to 80 years in prison if convicted on all charges.
The French-born heiress has also been charged with two counts of perjury. Those counts are due to be tried after her sex crimes trial.
The charges relate to testimony she gave in 2016 in a defamation case filed against her by Epstein accuser Virginia Giuffre.
Giuffre alleges Epstein lent her out for sex with his wealthy and powerful associates, including Prince Andrew.
Maxwell, a long-time friend of Andrew, is known to have introduced the prince to Epstein.
Giuffre has sued the royal in New York, alleging he had sex with her more than 20 years ago when she was 17 and a minor under US law.
That civil lawsuit is expected to be heard before a jury in late 2022.
Prince Andrew has not been criminally charged and has “unequivocally” denied the allegations.
Giuffre, now 38, is not part of the criminal case against Maxwell.
The alleged victims are expected to testify that Maxwell operated a ring of girls and young women who were taken across state lines to provide sex acts and sexualised massages for Epstein, for which they received hundreds of dollars.
The defense argues that Maxwell is being tried only because Epstein escaped justice.
They have indicated they will attack the accusers’ credibility by referencing alleged previous substance abuse.
They also intend to challenge their recollection of events by calling psychologist Elizabeth Loftus – an expert on “false memories” – to the stand.
During the trials of Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby she testified that memories become distorted over time, particularly during questioning years later.
The prosecution intends to call psychologist Lisa Rocchio to testify about common strategies used to groom children, such as developing trust before normalising sexual contact.
The proceedings against Maxwell come after convictions of Weinstein and the singer R. Kelly, cases that also saw the defense rely – ultimately in vain – on challenges of credibility.
“The atmosphere is ripe for cases like this,” former prosecutor Julie Rendelman told AFP.
But, she added, “it’s always difficult when you’re dealing with accusations that occurred so many years ago.”
Epstein was convicted in Florida in 2008 of paying young girls for massages, but served just 13 months in jail under a secret plea deal.
The holder of multiple passports, Maxwell has been denied bail six times, with judges deeming her a flight risk.
She is considered unlikely to testify.