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By Luc Cohen
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Ghislaine Maxwell was found guilty by a U.S. jury on Wednesday of helping the late financier Jeffrey Epstein sexually abuse teenage girls, sealing a remarkable fall from grace for the British socialite.
Maxwell, 60, was accused of recruiting and grooming four teenagers between 1994 and 2004 for Epstein, her former boyfriend, who killed himself in 2019 in a Manhattan jail cell while awaiting trial on sex abuse charges of his own.
She was convicted on five of six counts, including one count of sex trafficking. Lawyers for Maxwell, who faces up to 65 years in prison, vowed to appeal.
Maxwell's trial was widely seen as the reckoning Epstein never had and one of the highest-profile cases in the wake of the #MeToo movement, which encouraged women to speak out about sexual abuse by famous and powerful people.
During the month-long trial, jurors heard emotional and explicit testimony from four women who portrayed Maxwell as central to their abuse by Epstein. Three of the four said Maxwell herself touched their bare breasts or took part in the encounters, which often began as massages.
Maxwell's attorneys sought to undermine the women's credibility, arguing that they were motivated by money to implicate Maxwell since all four had received million-dollar awards from a compensation fund for Epstein's victims.
But the women disputed those characterizations, saying they decided to testify out of a desire for justice, not money.
"Money will not ever fix what that woman has done to me," testified one woman, known by her first name Carolyn, who said Maxwell once touched her bare breasts and buttocks as she prepared to massage Epstein when she was 14 in 2002.
Carolyn's case was at the heart of the sex trafficking charge because she said Maxwell would sometimes hand her hundreds of dollars in cash after she gave Epstein erotic massages. Epstein would masturbate during the encounters in his Palm Beach, Florida estate, Carolyn testified.
The jury deliberated for five full days before reaching the verdict.
After the verdict was read, Maxwell, wearing a burgundy turtleneck, poured herself a glass of water. Defense attorney Jeffrey Pagliuca patted her upper back. An expressionless Maxwell looked briefly at two of her siblings seated in the front row as she left the courtroom.
Annie Farmer, one of the women who testified against Maxwell, said: "I am so relieved and grateful that the jury recognized the pattern of predatory behavior that Maxwell engaged in for years and found her guilty of these crimes."
Maxwell's lawyer, Bobbi Sternheim, told reporters the defense was disappointed with the verdict.
"We have already started working on the appeal, and we are confident that she will be vindicated," Sternheim said outside of the courthouse.
Maxwell will return to Brooklyn's Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC), where she has been held in isolation since July 2020. Maxwell has voiced concerns about her treatment at the jail, asserting that guards have disrupted her sleep at night and that the stench of raw sewage has permeated her cell.
Sternheim asked U.S. District Judge Alison Nathan after the verdict was read to ensure that Maxwell received her booster vaccine against COVID-19. Nathan said the shot was available at MDC, and that she would look into it.
'ROAD TO JUSTICE'
The conditions at MDC are a far cry from the opulence that Maxwell, a daughter of late British press baron Robert Maxwell, had been accustomed to most of her life.
Her father founded a publishing house and owned tabloids including the Daily Mirror. He was found dead off his yacht near the Canary Islands in 1991.
Ghislaine Maxwell dated Epstein for several years in the 1990s, when the pair attended high society parties and traveled on luxurious private jets.
During the trial, prosecutors showed jurors bank records indicating Epstein paid Maxwell millions of dollars over the years. They said Maxwell was motivated to do whatever it took to keep Epstein happy in order to maintain her luxurious lifestyle.
Maxwell's attorneys argued prosecutors were scapegoating her because Epstein was no longer alive.
"Epstein's death left a gaping hole in the pursuit of justice for many of these women," Sternheim said. "She's filling that hole, and filling that empty chair."
But prosecutors countered by describing Maxwell as Epstein's "partner in crime."
"Ghislaine Maxwell made her own choices. She committed crimes hand in hand with Jeffrey Epstein. She was a grown woman who knew exactly what she was doing," Assistant U.S. Attorney Alison Moe said.
Damian Williams, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, applauded the verdict in a statement that said Maxwell was convicted of "one of the worst crimes imaginable."
"The road to justice has been far too long," his statement said. "But, today, justice has been done. I want to commend the bravery of the girls – now grown women – who stepped out of the shadows and into the courtroom."
Epstein's arrest and suicide drew attention to Maxwell's role in his abuses, and to the financier's relationships with prominent figures like former U.S. Presidents Bill Clinton and Donald Trump, Britain's Prince Andrew and billionaire investor Leon Black.
None has been charged with crimes related to Epstein.
The prince, a former friend of Epstein, is defending against a civil lawsuit in Manhattan claiming he sexually abused Virginia Giuffre, another of Epstein's accusers. Andrew has denied her claims.
'THAT DID NOT FEEL NORMAL'
During the trial, prosecutors displayed for the jury a green massage table that was seized from Epstein's Florida estate in 2005, backing up the women's descriptions of the massages.
The one charge Maxwell was acquitted on - enticing an underage girl to travel for the purpose of illegal sexual activity - carried a maximum penalty of five years in prison.
That charge pertained to a woman known by the pseudonym Jane, who testified that she was 14 when Epstein first abused her in 1994.
Jane said she often traveled to Epstein's homes in New Mexico and New York, where some of the abuse took place, and that Maxwell sometimes helped coordinate her travel.
Maxwell at times took part in her sexual encounters with Epstein and acted as if it was normal, Jane testified.
"It made me feel confused because that did not feel normal to me," Jane said. "I'd never seen anything like this or felt anything like this."
Despite the not-guilty verdict on that count, the jury appeared to find other aspects of Jane's story credible. They convicted Maxwell of transporting a minor to travel for illegal sex acts, another count that pertained solely to Jane.
Moe said during her closing argument that Maxwell's presence made young girls feel comfortable with Epstein. Otherwise, receiving an invitation to spend time with a middle-aged man would have seemed "creepy" and "set off alarm bells," Moe said.
"Epstein could not have done this alone," she said.
(Reporting by Luc Cohen; Additional reporting by Jonathan Stempel; Editing by Noeleen Walder, Alistair Bell, Grant McCool and Sandra Maler)