The much-anticipated trial of Ghislaine Maxwell is set to begin in New York today, with opening statements setting the scene for what is expected to be a six-week hearing at the imposing Thurgood Marshall US Courthouse in Lower Manhattan.
The British socialite, who has pleaded not guilty to all the charges against her, will challenge claims she groomed underage girls for convicted paedophile Jeffrey Epstein. Her defence team is expected to argue that some of her accusers are motivated by money. The daughter of late media mogul Robert Maxwell faces up to 80 years in prison if found guilty.
A lawyer for one of the alleged victims told The Times that “survivors have waited many years for this day” and said the trial “will give them a voice – the voice that the abuse stole from them”.
The socialite’s alleged crimes will be aired in gruelling detail but the “spectre” of Epstein, who killed himself in August 2019 while awaiting trial, is likely to “hang heavily over the trial”, said The Independent.
What are the charges?
The testimony of four of Epstein’s accusers will be at the heart of the prosecution’s case, said the BBC.
They will allege that Maxwell was integral to Epstein’s abuse of teenagers during the 1990s and early 2000s, and that she sometimes participated in it. She is accused of luring victims with cash in exchange for sexualised massages in Florida, New York, New Mexico and London.
Annie Farmer, the only one of the four to waive her anonymity, claimed she was abused by Epstein at his New Mexico ranch in 1996, said Sky News.
Maxwell faces six charges: conspiracy to entice minors to travel to engage in illegal sex acts, enticement of a minor to travel to engage in illegal sex acts, conspiracy to transport minors with intent to engage in criminal sexual activity, transporting a minor with the intent to engage in criminal sexual activity, sex trafficking conspiracy, and sex trafficking of a minor.
The prosecution will allege that Maxwell would befriend girls by asking them about their schools and their families, and “having developed a rapport with a victim”, would “try to normalise 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”.
What other evidence will the prosecution present?
Supporting witnesses will be called, including an expert witness on grooming. Sky News has speculated that there may be “significant but yet-to-be-revealed people” who have agreed to co-operate with the government and provide testimony.
Prosecutors are also expected to present a “little black book” of contacts, including names and phone numbers of alleged victims, and it is possible they will present video footage from the extensive CCTV systems Epstein installed in his homes.
Is a fair trial possible?
Maxwell’s brother Ian told BBC Radio 4’s World at One programme that his sister is “probably relieved finally that it is starting because she’s been in prison now for over 500 days in isolation”.
However, following years of lurid and negative headlines against his sister, he said the “tremendous weight of negative publicity” means he is “fearful” a fair trial is not possible.
Legal experts believe this is “one of the most high-profile cases to try a woman for allegedly facilitating a sex trafficking operation”, wrote Nada Tawfik, the BBC’s New York correspondent.