US trial of Epstein associate Ghislaine Maxwell to begin

Maxwell is accused of grooming girls for the disgraced financier to sexually abuse and faces up to 80 years in prison.

British socialite Ghislaine Maxwell faces up to 80 years in prison if convicted of helping Jeffrey Epstein [File: John Minchillo/AP]

The trial of Ghislaine Maxwell, a British socialite accused of grooming underage girls for disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein to sexually abuse, is set to begin in a Manhattan federal court.

Maxwell has pleaded not guilty to all six charges against her, which include sex trafficking of a minor. If convicted in the trial, which starts on Monday and is expected to stretch into January, the 59-year-old daughter of a newspaper baron could face up to 80 years in prison.

Maxwell was arrested in July 2020, after the 66-year-old Epstein was found dead in a federal jail in Manhattan, where he was awaiting trial on child sex-trafficking charges. Officials have said the death was a suicide.

Maxwell allegedly committed the crimes between 1994 and 2004. They relate to four unnamed women, including two who say they were 14 and 15 years old when they were sexually abused.

Prosecutors say Maxwell befriended girls with shopping and movie theatre trips, later coaxing them into giving Epstein nude massages at his various residences, during which he would engage in sex acts before giving them money.

Federal prosecutors say Maxwell at times participated in the alleged abuse, which occurred at her London home and at Epstein’s properties in New Mexico, Manhattan, and Palm Beach, Florida.

Since her arrest, Maxwell, who along with Epstein was known to have many influential and politically powerful friends, has been held at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn. She has complained of unsanitary and inhumane conditions and remains under rigorous surveillance.

Victim testimony

Maxwell’s alleged victims are set to testify that the heiress operated a ring of girls and young women who were taken across state lines to provide sex acts and sexualised massages for Epstein, for which they received hundreds of dollars.

The defence has argued that prosecutors are only targeting Maxwell because Epstein escaped justice. They have indicated they will attack the accusers’ credibility by referencing alleged previous substance abuse.

They also intend to challenge their recollection of events by calling psychologist Elizabeth Loftus – an expert on so-called “false memories” – to the stand.

During the sex abuse trials of Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby, she testified that memories become distorted over time, particularly during questioning years later.

For its part, the prosecution intends to call psychologist Lisa Rocchio to testify about common strategies used to groom children, such as developing trust before normalising sexual contact.

Epstein had previously been convicted in Florida in 2008 of paying young girls for massages but served just 13 months in jail under a secret plea deal.

Maxwell, who holds multiple passports, has been denied bail six times, with judges deeming her a flight risk. She is not expected to testify.

Allegations against Prince Andrew

Closely watched during the trial will be any revelations related to Epstein’s high-profile friends and associates.

Maxwell’s lawyers have sought to keep the financier’s so-called “little black book” of contacts out of the view of jurors.

Epstein accuser Virginia Giuffre, who is not part of the criminal case against Maxwell, is currently suing the UK’s Prince Andrew, alleging he is among the powerful associates Epstein “lent her to” for sex.

The civil lawsuit is expected to be heard before a jury in late 2022.

Authorities have not criminally charged the royal, who says he “unequivocally” denies the allegations.

Maxwell, a longtime friend of Andrew, is known to have introduced the prince to Epstein.

Maxwell separately faces two counts of perjury related to testimony she gave in 2016 in a defamation case filed by Giuffre. Those charges are set to be tried after the current trial ends.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies