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Juror revelations may jeopardize Ghislaine Maxwell convictions, experts say

The main jury panel sits in the jury box waiting to be dismissed after deliberating during Ghislaine Maxwell's sex trafficking trial on Dec. 21 in Manhattan federal court. (Elizabeth Williams/AP)

NEW YORK — Ghislaine’s Maxwell’s sex-trafficking and conspiracy conviction, little more than a week old, may not be salvageable, legal experts said Thursday after two jurors publicly disclosed past sexual abuse that they might not have included on pretrial questionnaires.

Attorneys for the former longtime paramour of disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein are preparing to seek a new trial on the grounds that Maxwell’s first was fundamentally unfair. A judge will consider the issue later this month.

Defense lawyers made the request Wednesday, based on news articles that quoted one juror saying he used his past to convince others on the jury to believe Maxwell’s accusers, despite some gaps and inconsistencies.

Photos included with some of the articles indicate the juror is a 35-year-old executive assistant in the finance sector who was referred to as Juror No. 50 during anonymous voir dire proceedings.

Maxwell, 60, was found guilty on Dec. 29, after four women testified that she groomed and recruited them as teenagers to give sexualized massages to Epstein, and in some cases groped them herself.

Ghislaine Maxwell, the longtime companion of Jeffrey Epstein, stands trial for sex trafficking of minors and conspiracy. Here's what to watch for in the case. (Video: Joyce Koh/The Washington Post)

The disclosure that Juror No. 50 was abused as a child would not have automatically disqualified him from serving on Maxwell’s jury. But the defense would have almost certainly used one of its challenges to dismiss him, had he made it past the 30-page, 50-question survey to voir dire, an interview process in open court.

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The answers to the questionnaires are sealed, and jurors’ names have not been made public. It is unclear whether Juror No. 50 revealed his history of abuse when asked on the questionnaire if he or a friend or relative had ever “been the victim of sexual harassment, sexual abuse, or sexual assault?” In the transcript of his voir dire, however, he is not asked about his answer to the sexual abuse question, suggesting a disclosure had not been made.

The sexual abuse and sexual assault question on the survey was considered vital to the process of picking a fair panel in a high-profile case that centered on the abuse of underage victims. At issue now is whether Juror No. 50 omitted his own history from the questionnaire despite written and verbal warnings that he was under oath and was instructed to tell the truth.

In the printed packets, jurors were warned with capital letters and underlined notations — that they were sworn to provide truthful responses. The final page is a declaration requiring a signature to the fact that “under penalty of perjury” all of the above answers were truthful “to the best of my knowledge and belief.”

Former federal prosecutors watching the matter unfold have said U.S. District Judge Alison J. Nathan has tough questions to consider, including whether what has transpired has resulted in a “material prejudice” against Maxwell that can only be cured by a trial do-over.

“This juror has no idea what kind of a chaotic chain reaction he has unleashed,” said Jason P.W. Halperin, a former prosecutor in the U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan, which handled the investigations of both Maxwell and Epstein prior to Epstein’s death by suicide while awaiting trial in August 2019.

After written motions are filed in the coming weeks and Nathan “very likely” holds a hearing on the matter, “there is now a very real possibility that there will have to be a new trial,” Halperin added.

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In 2015, a federal appeals court in New York granted a new trial to a former Deutsche Bank broker in what was considered the biggest tax-fraud case in history on the grounds that a juror in the case lied about substantial matters in her background.

In Maxwell’s case, voir dire spanned several days, and dozens of jurors were released from service based on their questionnaire answers. Juror No. 50, who could not be reached by The Washington Post, told Reuters that he didn’t recall being asked about sexual abuse history and that he breezed through the questionnaire.

Todd Spodek, an attorney representing the juror, did not respond to requests for comment on Thursday. Spodek filed notice with the court that he was representing the juror on Wednesday, within hours of the U.S. attorney’s office bringing the juror’s comments to the judge’s attention and suggesting that Nathan appoint a lawyer for him.

“The juror undoubtedly has exposure for perjury,” said Lindsay K. Gerdes, a former federal and state prosecutor who until recently served in the U.S. attorney’s office in Brooklyn. “That’s why not only did the government ask for an attorney to be appointed, the judge in fact agreed that was appropriate. And now this juror has decided to just retain their own attorney.”

Gerdes said the legal issues at play in Maxwell’s case stand out. “Most of these motions [for a new trial] are dismissed out of hand. But this is one that is getting immediate attention and very well may have a positive outcome for the defendant here,” she added.

Juror No. 50’s experience during voir dire was mostly unremarkable, according to the transcript. He was asked about his social media habits, replying that he had deleted his accounts “because I just got out of a relationship and I didn’t want to see anything regarding them.”

Last week, however, he appeared to announce his participation on the jury in an Instagram post, calling it “an incredible, surreal experience and an honor to serve our country!” He also posted a selfie taken in front of the federal courthouse in early November in which he is playfully sticking out his tongue.

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In another twist that could influence the outcome of the future proceedings, a second juror told the New York Times they had also been abused and that their experience had played into deliberations, which lasted five full days and concluded in late December. As with Juror No. 50, it is not clear whether that person divulged the information on the questionnaire.

Maxwell faces up to 65 years in prison based on her conviction. Her trial spanned four weeks and featured nearly 30 witnesses, including the four accusers, unfolding in pandemic conditions with the omicron variant bearing down.

It would be both expensive and complicated to launch a new trial, and some legal observers said Thursday that they were skeptical that Nathan would order a redo.

For one thing, they said, it is rare for a judge to overturn a conviction after making careful rulings and decisions to ensure a fair trial. Judges tend to be wary of wading too much into the jury process, which is secret and generally protected.

Seth DuCharme, a former Justice Department official and former acting U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, said precedent allows jurors some leniency but that jury conduct becomes improper when, for instance, a juror conceals having a personal relationship with a party in the case.

Outside of egregious examples, “there’s a certain acceptance that jurors bring personal experience into deliberations,” DuCharme said.

Juries are generally not attorneys and judges, so conversations in jury rooms are “amongst people that come from the community,” he added. “If you were going to disturb every jury verdict because somebody brought their own personal experience into that process, then you would have to disturb every jury verdict.”

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