Voices: I was in the courtroom throughout Ghislaine Maxwell’s trial – and I watched her defiance crumble

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  • Ghislaine Maxwell
    Ghislaine Maxwell
    Socialite
Ghislaine Maxwell, unmasked, speaks with defence attorney Jeffrey Pagliuca (REUTERS)
Ghislaine Maxwell, unmasked, speaks with defence attorney Jeffrey Pagliuca (REUTERS)

Ghislaine Maxwell cut a confident figure on the opening day of her trial for sex-trafficking young girls on behalf of her boyfriend-turned-benefactor Jeffrey Epstein.

The consummate networker was full of energy as she greeted her attorneys with a hug each morning, listened intently to the opening arguments, took notes and whispered through her mask in the ear of senior counsel Bobbi Sternheim.

Her hair had grown out to shoulder length and been dyed black, and she dressed stylishly in neutral-coloured sweaters and black trousers.

The spring in her step made her appear much younger than her nearly 60 years, especially given the inhumane jail conditions she had complained about being subjected to for the previous 18 months. Maxwell’s supporters said she was kept in solitary confinement next to an open sewer, and guards shined a light in her eyes every 15 minutes to check she was breathing.

Maxwell wholeheartedly believed in her own innocence, and seemed to relish the chance to clear her name. No doubt she was heartened by some early missteps from the prosecution, too.

After a delay in swearing in the jury, the four-strong US Assistant Attorney team decided to call longtime Epstein pilot Larry Visoski as its first witness. They didn’t want to have primary accuser “Jane” begin her testimony late in the afternoon, only for it to be interrupted by the first day’s adjournment. Visoski was an Epstein ally who testified he never saw any hint of impropriety during 30 years flying his paymaster around the world, and appeared to offer exculpatory evidence for Maxwell, while name-dropping some of the powerful passengers who had climbed aboard the “Lolita Express” over the years.

But once Jane began testifying on day two of the trial, her evidence was indeed damning of the wealthy socialite. She described the group origies and sex acts she was forced to participate in after being lured to Epstein’s Palm Beach mansion with the promise of being introduced to people in high places.

Under Laura Menninger’s surgical cross-examination, Jane was confronted with discrepancies in her story. The $2.9 million payout she received from the Epstein victim compensation fund was brought up, and a lengthy examination of her career as a soap actress followed. Her roles as a prostitute, a cancer survivor, and a woman who took down a Mexican drug cartel were aired while she was accused of being “melodramatic”.

Prosecutors next called witnesses who corroborated parts of Jane’s story about Epstein: a former boyfriend, “Matt”; an assistant vice-president of finance at the Interlochen Arts Camp where she first met Maxwell; and an expert on child sex abuse.

All the while, Maxwell kept up her note-scribbling, passing a stream of written suggestions to her lawyers.

By the time the second accuser “Kate” testified on day six, prosecutors were much sharper with their questioning. Kate described to prosecutor Lara Pomerantz in vivid detail how she’d been groomed to perform sexualized massages for Epstein after being introduced to him by Maxwell at the age of 17. This time, Pomerantz asked Kate the tough questions about the $3.2 million she had received from the Epstein victim compensation fund, about her battles with drug and alcohol addiction, and about why Kate had continued to see Epstein well into her 30s. This seemed to take the sting out of cross-examination from Sternheim.

It was a playbook the prosecution repeated with the remaining accusers, asking them about inconsistencies in a way that made them come across sympathetically to the jury.

The third accuser, “Carolyn”, was the least assured in the stand, but the suffering she had endured as a result of Epstein’s role in her life gave her authenticity. The defense did strike a few blows by confusing her about what she had told the FBI in previous statements.

The fourth witness to testify on day 10, Annie Farmer, explicitly placed Maxwell at the heart of the sexual grooming, telling how she was given a topless massage by Maxwell before Epstein tried to get into bed with her for a “cuddle” the next morning. Textbook abuse, they said. Prosecutors again asked the difficult questions before the defense could. It allowed Farmer to explain herself in non-hostile territory.

The cumulative weight of the four accusers’ testimony was obvious, the similarities in their stories undeniable. Maxwell had by this stage entered into a running feud with the courtroom sketch artists, who were the only visual medium allowed in court to relay her appearance to the outside world.

Maxwell had clearly grown upset at her likeness being drawn and began to sketch the artists back. But the petulant move backfired when the artists simply sketched the socialite sketching them. An inception moment had been reached.

Whether it was fatigue or an acceptance of her fate, Maxwell’s energy appeared to drain by the time the prosecution rested its case at the end of the second week.

When the defense opened after a three-day recess, it was an almost comically chaotic affair. After signaling they would call 35 witnesses, defense attorneys were left scrambling to find anyone to call at times. One, a British man named Alexander Hamilton, had Covid. Three were banned from giving evidence under a pseudonym by Judge Alison Nathan.

Laura Menninger begged Judge Nathan for a delay so they could call the 81-year-old owner of the Nag’s Head in London to testify whether Maxwell had owned a house in Belgravia, London, in 1994, where “Kate” said her abuse began. At this point the defendant must have wondered what her $7 million legal bill had gone on.

As she stood to address Judge Nathan on day 12, with Sternheim’s arm wrapped around her lower back, Maxwell still outwardly projected defiance. “Your honour, the government has not proved its case beyond a reasonable doubt so there is no need for me to testify,” she said.

But during harsh closing arguments from the most clinical of the US Assistant Attorneys, Maurene Comey, Maxwell wiped her eyes twice as Comey attacked defense portrayals of the women who testified about abuse they incurred as teenagers. She shook her head slightly and then dropped her eyes. Despite having an unshakable belief in her own innocence, this “sophisticated predator” had been worn down after hearing two weeks of unvarnished truth. That she enabled the worst of Epstein’s excesses. That she participated in the abuse. That she was a convicted child sex trafficker and that she will likely be spending a few more birthdays in prison.

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