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- American financier
Ghislaine Maxwell is set to come face-to-face with her accusers in a New York court today, for the opening of what is set to be an extraordinary trial shining a spotlight on one of the largest sex trafficking rings in US history.
Prosecutors will tell the court of how Ms Maxwell "assisted, facilitated, and contributed" to former partner Jeffrey Epstein’s abuse, in what has already been dubbed the “trial of the century”.
The British socialite faces six criminal counts tied to alleged efforts to entice minors to travel and engage in illegal sex acts, conspiracy to transport minors with intent to engage in criminal sexual activity, and sex trafficking conspiracy. She has denied the charges, but faces up to 80 years in prison if found guilty.
“I’ve waited 26 years for this,” tweeted Maria Farmer, one of Ms Maxwell and Epstein's alleged victims whose sister is one of the four accusers due to testify, on the eve of the trial.
A dozen jurors, plus alternates, will be chosen from a pool of 60 on Monday morning to sit for what is expected to be a six-week hearing, masked and socially distanced in a pandemic-era courtroom.
Ms Maxwell’s lawyers claim the heiress has been put in the dock for the crimes of her the late financier, Epstein, who died in 2019 awaiting his own sex trafficking trial.
The federal US District Court is just yards from the Lower Manhattan prison where Epstein was found hanging in his cell.
Most of the prospective jurors questioned by Judge Alison Nathan answered that they had either read about or heard of the late financier, giving Ms Maxwell’s team a challenge to ensure a fair trial.
Prosecutors have described Ms Maxwell, 59, as the registered sex offender's shadowy right-hand confidante and accomplice, who acted both as paramour and madam at the behest of his proclivities.
Together the pair allegedly crafted a scheme to procure young girls for Epstein, who, according to court documents, claimed a "biological" need for sex three times a day.
The trial’s drama will revolve around testimony from four women who say they and others were victimised 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.
The US government says there is evidence Ms 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.
Defence lawyers, however, 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 was not legally underage.
The indictment said Ms Maxwell would stay in the room as Epstein abused minors, which "helped put the victims at ease because an adult woman was present."
“Without Ghislaine, Jeffrey could not have done what he did,” prosecutors have claimed.
In sworn testimony for an earlier civil case, Ms Maxwell acknowledged she dated Epstein but said she later became his employee, tasked with things like hiring staff for his six homes.
"A very small part of my job was to find adult professional massage therapists for Jeffrey," she said during a deposition in 2016. "As far as I'm concerned, everyone who came to his house was an adult professional person."
They plan to show jurors a picture of Ms Maxwell and Epstein swimming nude together to illustrate their close relationship.
The mention of Ms Maxwell’s address books have sparked speculation that the trial could explore Epstein’s connections to Prince Andrew, former President Bill Clinton and former OJ Simpson lawyer Alan Dershowitz. But the judge has tried to temper expectations, saying only certain pages of the so-called “black book” will come into evidence to avoid needless name-dropping.
Notably absent is Virginia Roberts Giuffre, one of the most well-known accusers, who says she was 17 when Epstein and Maxwell forced her to have sex with their high-profile and powerful circle of friends, including the Duke and Mr Dershowitz, who both deny the allegations.
In what is viewed by some legal experts as a risky strategy in the post-#MeToo era, the daughter of press baron Robert Maxwell’s lawyers will question the credibility of the four women. They have said in a court filing that one was motivated by a "desire for cash" and that all have received payouts from the Epstein Victims’ Compensation Fund.
The proceedings come after convictions of disgraced Hollywood director Harvey Weinstein and the singer R. Kelly, which saw the defence rely on challenges of credibility - that ultimately failed.
Ms Maxwell’s family has repeatedly said the youngest of the nine siblings has been scapegoated after Epstein’s death.
This is "the most over-hyped trial of the century without a doubt," brother Ian Maxwell said last week.
“This is not quite a put-up job but nonetheless [the case] has been cobbled together so that Ghislaine is made to face the charges that Epstein never faced.
"This is designed to break her; I can't see any other way to read it.”