Ghislaine Maxwell was found guilty by a New York jury of criminal sex trafficking charges stemming from her years-long relationship with convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.
The verdict came on Wednesday after a three-week trial in which Maxwell, 60, was described by prosecutors as a “sophisticated predator” who worked “hand-in-hand” with Epstein to prey on vulnerable women. Her defence portrayed her as an innocent woman unfairly made to be his scapegoat. She was found guilty on five of the six charges against her.
The trial was regarded by advocates for accusers as the best opportunity to gain an accounting of the Epstein saga and win some measure of justice after the financier died by suicide in a New York jail cell in August 2019, a month after his arrest.
Maxwell’s trial featured often harrowing testimony from four women who claimed Epstein abused them through sexualised massages beginning when they were as young as 14.
Prosecutors alleged that Maxwell sometimes joined the abuse. The British socialite was essential to the scheme, they said, because she helped recruit the girls and win their trust while providing a veneer of respectability to the outside world. She was paid more than $30m by Epstein.
Her lawyers countered that the accusers had altered their memories in order to win a “jackpot” of compensation from an Epstein victims fund established after his death. Maxwell, they said, was herself a victim of one of the era’s great conmen and unaware of his activities despite their close relationship.
“Ghislaine Maxwell is not Jeffrey Epstein,” Laura Menninger, her attorney, told jurors in her closing argument last week. “She’s being tried for being with Jeffrey Epstein. Maybe that was the biggest mistake of her life but that was not a crime.”
Menninger also accused prosecutors of maligning her client as “Cruella de Vil and The Devil Wears Prada all wrapped into one”.
Epstein, a college dropout, amassed a fortune with a mysterious financial advisory business and came to rub shoulders with two presidents — Donald Trump and Bill Clinton — while ingratiating himself with superstars of business, academia and politics.
The trial gave a rich glimpse into the lavish lives of Epstein and Maxwell, which included a squadron of private jets and estates in Palm Beach and Manhattan, a New Mexico ranch and a private Caribbean island. At one point, prosecutors brought one of Epstein’s massage tables into the courtroom.
But it did little to illuminate his contacts with some of the many powerful men who have since been tarnished by their associations with Epstein, including Leslie Wexner, the billionaire founder of The Limited and Victoria’s Secret; Bill Gates, the Microsoft co-founder; Leon Black, the private equity investor; or Jes Staley, who was forced to step down as chief executive of Barclays in November after revelations that he misstated his ties to Epstein.
Maxwell, the Oxford-educated daughter of the late British press baron and embezzler Robert Maxwell, made contact with Epstein in Manhattan in the early 1990s, and they soon became a formidable team: her social contacts and charm helped to advance his business interests.
But behind the scenes, Florida police began to investigate reports that a wealthy Palm Beach man was sexually abusing underage girls from local schools. Epstein was granted a secretive deal in 2008 that allowed him to plead to lesser charges of prostitution and serve a 13-month jail sentence while working out of his office.
The case was revived by federal prosecutors in Manhattan after an investigative report in the Miami Herald by the journalist Julie K Brown. Epstein was arrested at Teterboro airport in New Jersey in July 2019 after stepping off his private jet. Maxwell was arrested a year later at a large home in rural New Hampshire called Tucked Away.
In one of the most emotional moments of the trial, a witness identified as “Carolyn” described her upbringing in a broken home — with an alcoholic mother and absent father — and how an older girl brought her to Epstein’s Palm Beach home when she was 14 with the promise of earning some cash.
That was the beginning of what would be hundreds of visits for sexualised massages over the next two years, with Carolyn and her boyfriend using the money to buy drugs. She called the English woman who helped arrange the dates “Maxwell”, she testified, because she could not pronounce her first name. Her boyfriend described her as “a child” at the time.
“My soul is broken,” Carolyn said at one point during her testimony.
Another witness, identified as “Jane”, recounted the time when Epstein drove her to the Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach to meet Trump.
Maxwell spent much of the trial shuffling papers on the desk in front of her and conferring with her lawyers. She was often supported by her siblings Kevin, Ian and Isabel seated in the front row of the court.
Maxwell declined to testify in her own defence, telling the judge: “Your honour, the government has not proven its case beyond a reasonable doubt and so there is no need for me to testify.” It was the only time she addressed the court.