A United States jury has begun deliberations in the trial of Ghislaine Maxwell, after prosecutors in closing arguments described the British socialite as a “dangerous” predator who recruited and groomed teenage girls for sexual exploitation by disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein.
But Maxwell’s defence lawyers argued on Monday that the 59-year-old is an “innocent woman” who had been wrongfully accused, as the widely watched legal proceedings in New York speeded to a close.
A former girlfriend of Epstein’s, Maxwell faces a potential sentence of 70 years in prison if convicted of the charges against her, including sex trafficking. Four women testified during the trial that they were abused by Epstein with the help of Maxwell, who has pleaded not guilty.
Assistant US Attorney Alison Moe told jurors on Monday that Maxwell was a “sophisticated predator who knew exactly what she was doing”.
“She ran the same playbook again and again and again,” Moe said. “She manipulated her victims and groomed them. She caused deep and lasting harm to young girls. It is time to hold her accountable.”
Defence lawyer Laura Menninger said prosecutors had failed to prove any charges beyond a reasonable doubt. “Ghislaine Maxwell is an innocent woman, wrongfully accused of crimes she did not commit,” Menninger said.
Instead, Maxwell’s defence team has argued that she was being made a scapegoat after Epstein, 66, died by suicide in a New York jail cell in August 2019 as he awaited trial on sex trafficking charges.
Over the course of the three-week trial, prosecutors presented evidence and testimony from two dozen witnesses that alleged Epstein and Maxwell had preyed on teenage girls at Epstein’s New York mansion, a Florida estate and a New Mexico ranch.
The trial had been expected to last six weeks but with a coronavirus outbreak surging in New York as the fourth week began, Judge Alison J Nathan urged lawyers to keep their closing arguments short so the jury could begin deliberating as early as Monday.
“Ghislaine Maxwell was dangerous,” Moe told the jurors, saying Maxwell had accepted more than $30m in payments from Epstein over the years. “Maxwell and Epstein committed horrifying crimes.”
Moe faced the jury as Maxwell, in a white sweater, sat behind her at the defence table and wrote notes, occasionally turning the pages of a notebook. Later, Maxwell turned in her chair towards the jury, sometimes pulling down her black mask to sip from a water bottle.
The prosecutor also told jurors that Maxwell was a “posh, smiling, age-appropriate woman” who provided cover for Epstein’s “creepy” behaviour.
Much of the case will come down to what jurors believe about the recollections of the four women who said they were abused with Maxwell present.
A psychology professor testified for the defence that memories fade over time and can be influenced by what people hear, see or read.
Maxwell’s defence also cited instances in which Maxwell’s accusers never mentioned the defendant’s name when they first spoke of the abuse they endured from Epstein.
The testimony from accusers was manipulated by civil lawyers representing them as they pursued millions of dollars in payouts from a special fund set up after Epstein’s suicide to compensate his victims, said Menninger, the defence lawyer.
Maxwell’s accusers suddenly “recovered memories that Ghislaine was there”, she said.
In closing arguments on Monday, the prosecution dismissed the memory expert’s testimony as a “distraction”.
“These women know what happened to their own bodies,” Moe said. “Your common sense tells you that being molested is something you never forget, ever.”
Maxwell, who declined to take the witness stand in her own defence, has been jailed without bail since her arrest in July 2020.
The judge has denied her bail repeatedly, despite her lawyer’s arguments that the pledge of her $22.5m estate and a willingness to be watched 24 hours a day by armed guards would guarantee her appearance in court.