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In Ghislaine Maxwell trial, a #MeToo question: Are enablers criminally liable?

An undated photo shows Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell. The photo was entered into evidence by the U.S. attorney’s office during the trial of Maxwell, the Epstein associate accused of sex trafficking. (U.S. attorney’s office/Reuters)

The trial that Jeffrey Epstein’s suicide made impossible would have answered a relatively simple question: Did the wealthy investor habitually abuse teenage girls?

Now a jury is weighing a more complex question involving Ghislaine Maxwell, Epstein’s longtime girlfriend and manager of his home affairs: As the nation confronts the problem of sexual assault, is the justice system prepared to hold to account people who enable abusers?

The Maxwell case — the defense wrapped up Friday, with closing arguments expected Monday — has attracted much of the attention that would have saturated an Epstein trial if he hadn’t killed himself in a New York jail cell in 2019.

It centers on whether the wealthy, British-born socialite recruited, groomed, trained and trafficked young girls to be Epstein’s sexual servants. But it is also a test of the criminal justice system’s ability to determine why people such as Epstein, movie magnate Harvey Weinstein and R&B star R. Kelly are able to get away with abuses for years on end.

“This is the next frontier in getting at the root causes of this kind of abuse,” said Deborah Tuerkheimer, a law professor at Northwestern University, former prosecutor and author of “Credible,” a book on the credibility of sexual abuse victims. “This case really upends the familiar #MeToo scripts. Maxwell does not look like the standard sexual abuser, so this trial is pushing outward the boundaries of what the public — and the criminal justice system — considers an abuser.”

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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)

In the first two weeks of the trial, prosecutors in a federal courtroom in Manhattan presented four women who say Epstein abused them when they were teens. They portrayed Maxwell as the person who invited them to Epstein’s mansions and pampered them with gifts, money and attention. Some said she directed them to undress, taught them how to massage Epstein or took part in the alleged abuse by touching their breasts and buttocks and joining in what one victim described as “an orgy.”

“She is a sexual predator who groomed and abused me and countless other children and young women,” Annie Farmer, one of the women who testified against Maxwell last week, told U.S. District Judge Alison J. Nathan after Maxwell’s arrest last year.

Maxwell’s defense attorneys called witnesses who denied seeing inappropriate conduct by Maxwell or Epstein and contradicted some details of the accusers’ stories.

The role of enablers has gone relatively unexamined in courtrooms, many attorneys said, even amid a cultural shift toward focusing on sexual abuse on college campuses, in workplaces and within private relationships.

“We kind of look the other way from anyone other than the actual perpetrator,” said Laurie Levenson, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. “But do any of us really think . . . that nobody had any indication of what Harvey Weinstein was up to? If you want to change what was going on, you have to change the culture and hold the enablers accountable.”

And when the alleged enabler is a woman, another set of expectations and stereotypes enter the courtroom, according to lawyers who have worked on sex abuse cases, both in the public’s perception and in the way jurors might evaluate witnesses and evidence.

From the first day of the trial last month, both sides made clear that Maxwell’s gender would be an inescapable focus of the case.

“Ever since Eve was accused of tempting Adam with the apple, women have been blamed for the bad behavior of men,” defense lawyer Bobbi Sternheim said in her opening statement to the jury. “And women are often villainized and punished more than the men ever are.”

In this case, Sternheim argued, the government is scapegoating a woman for the acts of a man “who behaved badly” and cannot be brought to justice. The sex-trafficking and related charges for which Maxwell faces up to 70 years in prison “are for things that Jeffrey Epstein did, but she is not Jeffrey Epstein,” Sternheim said. “She is not like Jeffrey Epstein. And she is not like any of the other men — powerful men, moguls, media giants — who abuse women.”

To the contrary, said prosecutor Lara Pomerantz. That’s exactly what Maxwell was — the enabler who abused girls by walking them “into a room where she knew that man would molest them.”

“And there were times when she was in the room when it happened, making it all feel normal and casual,” Pomerantz told jurors. “She preyed on vulnerable young girls, manipulated them, and served them up to be sexually abused.”

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How the focus on Maxwell’s gender will play with the jury of seven women and five men is hard to predict, but “women are often seen differently in the criminal justice system,” said Levenson, a former federal prosecutor. In Courtroom 318, the judge and most of the lawyers on each side are women.

Like all women, Levenson said, the lawyers in the Maxwell trial are most likely to have had “some experience with what these victims went through. And everybody has to question why a woman would be a party to this behavior? It seems a bit traitorous.”

The fact that Maxwell is a woman can cut both ways, according to Tuerkheimer: On one hand, “we are fairly quick as a society to demonize women.” But some jurors may be more sympathetic to a female defendant, assuming she’s less dangerous than a man in the same fact pattern, “even if there’s plenty of evidence that has come in that she’s worthy of demonizing,” the professor said.

Maxwell did not testify in her own defense. Her lawyers tried to identify inconsistencies in the stories told by Maxwell’s accusers — an approach that, in the #MeToo era, risks being perceived by some as victim shaming.

One alleged victim, “Jane,” an actress who used a pseudonym in court, testified that when she first visited Maxwell and Epstein at age 14, she assumed they were married — and then that Maxwell worked for Epstein. The first time Jane visited Epstein’s swimming pool at his Palm Beach, Fla., estate, she said, “there was at least four women and Ghislaine all topless, and some of them were naked. . . . I was just shocked because I hadn’t seen that before.”

Shortly after she was first abused by Epstein in his pool house, Jane said, she was alone in a room with Maxwell and Epstein, who were both naked and “fondling” each other, giggling as Epstein masturbated.

But under cross-examination by defense attorney Laura Menninger, Jane conceded that she had told FBI agents two years ago that she didn’t know when Maxwell first took part in her sexual encounters with Epstein.

“That memory has come back to you in the last two years?” Menninger asked.

“Well,” Jane replied, “memory is not linear.”

A little while later, in a tense exchange, Menninger pushed again: “You have come up with that memory in the last two years, correct?”

“I’ve come up with — ” Jane stumbled. “I don’t believe I’ve come up with a memory, no.”

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Over and over, defense lawyers pressed Jane and others who testified that Maxwell had groomed them to admit that they’d exaggerated or made up the accounts they gave in court.

The going sometimes got rough.

Menninger to Jane, who works on a soap opera: “You consider yourself an actor?”


“An actor plays the role of a fictional character for a living?”

“Yes . . . ”

“You’re able to cry on command?”

“No, not always. It’s not really how it works.”

Prosecutor Alison Moe tried to salvage Jane’s account: “Do you know the difference between acting on television and testifying in court?”

“Acting on television is not real, and testifying in court is real, is the truth,” Jane said. “I am here to hopefully finally find some sort of closure to all of this. This is something that I have been running from my entire life up until now, and I’m just tired of it.”

Although such questioning is standard for defense attorneys, experts said some jurors may react poorly to it — and especially to the sight of women pushing to discredit other women when they are testifying about emotionally devastating events.

“Some jurors might say, ‘Well, you’re hurting your own kind,’ ” Levenson said.

Yet such harsh cross-examination tactics “are used because they’re more likely to be effective than anything else,” Tuerkheimer said. “Defense attorneys have a job to do.”

It’s unfair to hold women attorneys to a different standard than men face, said Jill Filipovic, a journalist and lawyer in New York: “I don’t think female attorneys should have to follow a different rule book than male ones, and I think the public understands that.”

Still, the defense’s choice to aggressively challenge the victims — Sternheim called one witness, “Kate,” a “jet-setter” and focused on her history of drug and alcohol abuse to cast doubt on her memory — is a “decidedly anti-feminist strategy,” Filipovic said.

In an exchange over whether to show jurors a topless photo of Virginia Roberts, a vocal Epstein accuser who did not testify in the trial, defense attorney Menninger complained that prosecutors had accused Maxwell’s side of “slut shaming.”

Moe, one of the prosecutors, replied that it was “not our practice, frankly, your honor, to humiliate women with naked photographs of themselves when they’re in a courtroom.”

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Such sparring happens all the time in trials, Filipovic said, but having women do the aggressive questioning may ease any sense that the defense has gone too far. “The choice to hire female defense attorneys was a strategic one,” she said. “If you’re going to have an attorney questioning an alleged victim’s credibility, better for the optics for it to be a woman than a man.”

The defense has also questioned the motivations of Maxwell’s accusers, saying they are seeking financial gain. And lawyers plan to call an expert in “false memories” to testify that the women’s recollections from decades ago could be wrong. Similar efforts made by the defense at the sexual abuse trials of Weinstein and Kelly did not succeed: Both men were convicted.

Whatever the jurors decide, they will deliver a verdict that extends well beyond Maxwell’s personal fate.

“An acquittal sends the message that when it comes to criminal accountability, the enablers of these abuses probably continue to enjoy impunity,” Tuerkheimer said. “A conviction could give prosecutors room to cast a wider net going forward,” targeting enablers as well as the central bad guy in cases of serial abuse.

Jacobs reported from New York.