3 Takeaways From the First Week of Ghislaine Maxwell’s Sex-Trafficking Trial

The first week of the Ghislaine Maxwell trial in New York’s Southern District courthouse concluded on Friday. The jury has heard from nine witnesses so far, including Epstein’s former pilot and domestic employee; an alleged victim of Epstein’s and Maxwell’s who spoke under the pseudonym Jane; an expert on childhood sexual abuse; and law enforcement officers who searched Epstein’s Palm Beach residence. 

Maxwell is accused of helping Jeffrey Epstein recruit and sexually exploit underage girls as young as 14 between 1994 and 2004. She faces six charges, including transportation of a minor with intent to engage in illegal sex acts and conspiracy to commit sex trafficking of minors. She has pleased not guilty, and could face up to 80 years in prison if she’s convicted. 

The prosecution’s argument will be anchored by the testimonies of four alleged victims of Epstein and Maxwell. They will aim to show that Maxwell “took steps to provide Jeffrey Epstein with access to girls under the age of 18, knowing that Epstein intended to have sexual contact with those girls,” according to court documents. The defense has indicated it plans to call an expert witness on false memories, while also zeroing in on the definition of grooming. (At one point her attorneys objected to the prosecution asking a psychologist whether grooming can be done by someone other than the person receiving sexual satisfaction since in pre-trial motions, Judge Alison Nathan had said prosecutors could not ask the witness about “grooming by proxy” because of a lack of scientific literature on the topic. The objection was sustained.) Defense has also questioned whether the prosecutions’ witnesses have financial motivations — in opening statements, the defense mentioned that each victim who will testify has received money from an Epstein victims’ compensation fund. The prosecution has introduced evidence including a House Manual of detailed instructions for the domestic staff, a much-contested (and sealed from the public) version of Epstein’s address book, and on Friday, they set up a green massage table from Epstein’s Palm Beach residence for jurors to see. 

With the first week coming to an end, here are some takeaways:

Epstein’s presence looms large over the courtroom

The State’s case against Maxwell — based on allegations that she helped recruit minor girls for sexual abuse by Epstein — can’t exist without Epstein’s crimes, which has made the late, disgraced financier and sex offender an unavoidable, imposing presence in the courtroom. Jurors this week have been presented with room-by-room descriptions of his opulent homes, architectural plans of his Palm Beach, Florida, estate, the names of some of his famous acquaintances — from Bill Clinton to Fidel Castro — and photos of his private jets. They’ve heard about his preference for coming home to find his cars stocked with $100 bills, as well as his sexual proclivities, some of them criminal. The one alleged victim who has testified so far, Jane, has recounted her abuse by Epstein in graphic detail, like how he masturbated on her and how he’d preferred “very hard” massages from her that included “twisting his nipples.” 

Crucially for the prosecution, Jane alleged that Epstein did not act alone. Maxwell was involved in the abuse as well, she said. Jane described an instance where Maxwell and Epstein undressed and fondled each other in Epstein’s bedroom, guiding her to join them; she said Maxwell had touched her breasts during sexualized massages with Epstein and instructed her on how to touch him. She also said Maxwell had taken her shopping at Victoria’s Secret for plain white underwear. 

Prosecutors are focused on tying Maxwell closely to Epstein, asking former staffer witnesses to share their impressions of the hierarchy surrounding him. Epstein’s former pilot Larry Visoski characterized Maxwell as Epstein’s “Number Two” in his testimony; and Juan Alessi, a former member of Epstein’s domestic staff in Palm Beach, said he went to Maxwell first, not Epstein, for instructions on how to run the house. “She was my immediate superior,” he said.

The defense, meanwhile, seems poised to argue Maxwell was unaware of any abuse by Epsteain that may have taken place during the time period of Maxwell’s alleged crimes and that Epstein hid his activities from her. During cross examination of clinical psychologist Lisa Rocchio, defense attorney Jeffrey Pagliuca asked if childhood sexual abusers could deceive their peers to make the abuse seem normal. Rocchio said perpetrators are “quite good at” hiding their behavior. “And manipulating people around them?” Pagliuca added. “They can be, yes,” Rocchio said. 

The alleged abuse became increasingly central to Epstein’s and Maxwell’s world over time

Testimony from Alessi, the former employee at Epstein’s Palm Beach residence, suggested that at times, a significant portion of Epstein’s and Maxwell’s schedule revolved around his “massages,” which the prosecution has described as a “cover” for Epstein to initiate sexual contact with young victims. Accordingly, managing those appointments became a major responsibility for the staff. Alessi — who testified to stealing $6,300 from Epstein and confessed under cross-examination that he’d taken money on two separate occasions — said when he began working for Epstein in 1990, Epstein received one massage a day. By the time he left more than a decade later, Epstein was attending three daily massage sessions. 

Several of his assigned duties related to these appointments. He told the jury that he, Maxwell, and various assistants were responsible for consulting a Rolodex of supposed massage therapists to book sessions for Epstein, some as late as 10:00 or 11:00 at night. He said he would drive Maxwell around to spas, massage training schools, and massage parlors so that she could recruit more “massage therapists” for Epstein. He told the jury he put away the massage table after appointments and cleaned up oils and occasionally a dildo and massagers. He said that he had been instructed to pick up “Jane” at her school and her home and drive her to Epstein’s; he had also driven Jane, Epstein, and Maxwell to the airport tarmac to board Epstein’s private plane. He regularly welcomed massage therapists to the house, he said, and dropped them off by Maxwell’s desk on the ground floor. He’d even paid massage therapists after appointments — $100 per session — oftentimes by check and sometimes from his petty cash fund. Pagliuca asked him during cross-examination whether any of the supposed massage therapists had ever complained to him or said they’d had to do something they didn’t want to do. “No,” he said. “I wish they would’ve done, because I would’ve done something to stop it.”

The defense is going to keep impugning alleged abuse victims’ testimonies

In her opening statement, defense attorney Bobbi Sternheim said the case was about “memory, manipulation, and money.” So far, the team has indicated they will question alleged survivors’ stories along those lines: that they are misremembering, lying for personal gain, or they’ve been manipulated by someone who is using them. Laura Menninger opened her cross-examination of Jane by pointing out that she’d waited 20 years to tell law enforcement about her abuse. She then spent most of her time prodding inconsistencies in the timing and circumstances of events based on her previous interviews with the government, like the fact that she had once claimed she’d seen The Lion King on Broadway with Epstein in about 1994, although it turned out the play didn’t open until 1997. Jane answered “I don’t recall” to several questions from the defense. At one point she said, “Memory is not linear.” 

Clinical psychologist Dr. Lisa Rocchio spoke about reasons childhood sexual abuse survivors may not tell people about their abuse until adulthood, like shame, guilt, self-blame, or struggling to acknowledge to theirself what has happened. She added that law-enforcement agencies are often the “least likely group” to whom survivors will initially disclose their abuse. In cross-examination, the defense team asked Rocchio whether alcohol consumption could affect someone’s ability to accurately recall events like abuse. Pagliuca asked if she was familiar with the concept of confabulation, which he defined as “where the brain fills in gaps to make a whole picture of something.” Rocchio said she was. He also asked about the psychological concepts of secondary gain and malingering, which could indicate the defense lawyers plan to suggest victims have ulterior motives for sharing their stories.

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