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Maxwell conviction a symbolic win for sex abuse survivors, advocates say

A headline in London after a jury in New York found Ghislaine Maxwell guilty. (Tolga Akmen/AFP/Getty Images)

NEW YORK — Ghislaine Maxwell’s sex trafficking conviction is being hailed by advocates as symbolically significant for sex abuse victims, the latest example of women convincing a jury in a high-profile prosecution despite defense efforts to tear down their testimony.

Maxwell, 60, an Oxford-educated former socialite who spent years on the party circuit with some of the world’s wealthiest and most influential figures, was found guilty Wednesday of grooming and trafficking teenagers for multimillionaire Jeffrey Epstein, her longtime boyfriend and employer, who died by suicide while facing his own sex trafficking indictment in 2019.

The verdict, reached after a month-long trial, may come to serve as a road map for future prosecutions against systemic sex abuse facilitators, legal analysts said. Maxwell was convicted of roping in girls as young as 14 over a roughly 10-year period between the mid-1990s and 2000s.

“This was really the first trial that we saw where a woman who facilitated and enabled a high-profile sexual predator was brought to justice,” said Moira Penza, a former federal prosecutor in New York who led the successful sex trafficking and racketeering prosecution against NXIVM sex cult leader Keith Raniere. In that case, Raniere’s female lieutenants, including heiress Clare Bronfman, pleaded guilty to helping him commit crimes.

To prove its case against Maxwell, the U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan presented several accusers who gave emotional testimony about Maxwell’s role in their experience with Epstein — recruiting them, arranging their travel, booking their “massage” appointments and testing their willingness to engage in sexual acts with adults. Three of the four accusers described unwanted sexual touching by Maxwell herself.

Penza said that when high-powered male abusers have women like Maxwell at their side, “it really is a very disarming factor” to young victims. Without the women “normalizing” the interactions, “none of these men would have been able to commit the crimes that they did.”

Maxwell convicted on five of six counts of sex trafficking, conspiracy

David Boies, who represents several accusers of Epstein and Maxwell, including trial witness Annie Farmer, said the case “showed that the justice system is able to hold accountable people who make crimes possible — people who make a sex trafficking enterprise on the scope and scale and duration of the Epstein sex trafficking enterprise possible.”

Boies represented Epstein accuser Virginia Giuffre in lawsuits against Maxwell. Giuffre has claimed that she was peddled out for sex with people including Prince Andrew — an allegation the British royal adamantly denies.

While jurors did not hear from Giuffre at the trial, they learned from a former Epstein employee who took the witness stand that Maxwell first met and recruited Giuffre by approaching her outside Mar-a-Lago, the Palm Beach estate owned by former president Donald Trump.

“Jeffrey Epstein couldn’t have gone around picking up young girls. The vast majority would not have gotten into a car with him,” Boies said Thursday. “But Maxwell, a woman with manners, sophistication and charm, was able to recruit and induce young, vulnerable girls.”

Jurors in the Maxwell trial have not spoken publicly about their deliberations. But experts following the case said it is another example of how efforts by defense lawyers to question the motives and memories of women who accuse the powerful of abuse have failed. Lawyers for film producer Harvey Weinstein and music artist R. Kelly tried similar tactics during their trials — for rape and sexual assault, and sex trafficking, respectively. Both men also were convicted.

Trump and Epstein partied together. Until an island came between them.

“The fact that Epstein’s conduct was worse than Maxwell’s doesn’t alleviate her of accountability either morally or legally,” said Maggy Krell, a California-based former sex trafficking prosecutor and author of “Taking Down Backpage: Fighting the World’s Largest Sex Trafficker,” which will be released next month.

“Maxwell enabled the sexual abuse by targeting, recruiting and grooming these victims, and she knowingly aided in their suffering,” Krell added.

Maxwell’s attorneys vowed to appeal after the verdict was announced on Wednesday. Her legal team did not respond to a request for comment Thursday on those plans. But lawyers watching the case say an appeal could center on a controversial plea deal Epstein signed in Florida in 2007, in which federal prosecutors agreed to give all of his alleged associates immunity. While Maxwell wasn’t named specifically, it was understood that she and others in Epstein’s circle were covered, her attorneys have said.

U.S. District Court Judge Alison Nathan, who presided over Maxwell’s trial, ruled months ago that the agreement did not bar federal prosecutors in New York from pursuing their case — even though they, like the federal prosecutors in Florida, represent the federal government under the Justice Department umbrella.

But entertainer Bill Cosby’s sexual assault conviction was thrown out by Pennsylvania’s top court in July on somewhat similar grounds. The court found that the longtime entertainer was promised immunity by a prior sitting district attorney — and that the agreement was binding.

Nathan, who has been nominated to serve on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit in New York, would have to recuse herself from serving on any panel that hears an appeal of the case.

Maxwell’s team could also argue that the rising threat of the omicron variant, which spread through the New York area like wildfire during jury deliberations, created unfair conditions under which the jury had to operate. Nathan told jurors Wednesday morning that if they did not reach a verdict that day, they would be expected to continue deliberating through the New Year’s holiday weekend, including on Sunday. The judge was concerned that the longer the trial continued, the greater the chance that a juror would contract the coronavirus and need to be excused, potentially causing a mistrial.

Throughout deliberations, Maxwell’s attorneys noted their concern for any response by Nathan to juror notes that could lead them to feel pressured to come to a conclusion prematurely. But attorneys following the case said the jury appeared to meticulously review the evidence over five full days of deliberations, requesting more than a dozen witness transcripts, and that Nathan took steps to ensure a fair process.

Maxwells sentencing has not been scheduled. But she faces up to 65 years in prison, in addition to another trial on perjury ­charges related to depositions she gave in the lawsuit brought against her by Giuffre in 2015.

At least eight prison staffers knew Epstein should not be alone in cell

A spokesperson for the U.S. attorney’s office in the Southern District of New York did not respond to a request for comment on whether additional indictments connected to Epstein and Maxwell were possible, or whether, following Wednesday’s conviction, the office would continue to pursue its perjury case.

And while some criminal defendants try to reduce their sentences by helping prosecutors gather evidence against others after their convictions, Krell, the former prosecutor and author, doesn’t think Maxwell will get that chance.

“That ship has really sailed,” Krell said. “Perhaps she can get a sentencing discount for cooperating but because she went to trial on this case and because of the convictions she now has, it would be very difficult to avoid what will essentially amount to a life sentence.”

Other lawsuits against Maxwell and Epstein have been settled out of court, in sealed agreements. When Epstein died, a victims’ compensation program was established by his estate, and it has since distributed millions to his victims.

Another former Epstein employee, Lesley Groff, announced through her lawyers Thursday that the second of two lawsuits recently pending against her had been dropped — a development that the attorneys said vindicated their client. The first was dropped a year ago. Groff was one of the Epstein associates named in the 2007 agreement as having immunity from future criminal prosecution.

“Our hearts truly break for any person victimized by Epstein but the truth is — Lesley had no knowledge of and no participation in any of the illegal conduct alleged in the lawsuit,” attorneys Michael Bachner and Jon Whitcomb said in a statement. The attorneys also said the Justice Department informed them “no criminal charges will be brought against” Groff.

Also on Thursday, two former Manhattan Correctional Center jail guards accused of lying on paperwork to cover up security failures the night of Epstein’s death in custody saw prosecutors move to end their case following a six-month period in a deferred prosecution agreement.