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Jury sworn in Ghislaine Maxwell sex-abuse trial in New York

Ghislaine Maxwell trial in New York
Ghislaine Maxwell sits as the jurors are sworn in at the start of her trial on charges of sex trafficking, in a courtroom sketch in New York City, U.S., November 29, 2021.
REUTERS/Jane Rosenberg

A jury was sworn in on Monday in the sex-abuse trial of Ghislaine Maxwell, who is accused of recruiting and grooming underage girls for Jeffrey Epstein, the late, disgraced financier.

Between 1994 and 2004, Maxwell – a former employee and romantic partner of Epstein’s – allegedly sent gifts such as lingerie and discussed sexual topics with the girls to win their trust before encouraging them to give Epstein erotic massages, according to the 2021 indictment against her.

Maxwell, 59, has pleaded not guilty to eight charges of sex trafficking and other crimes, including two counts of perjury that will be tried at a later date.

Maxwell, who appeared in court wearing a white face mask amid the COVID-19 pandemic, faces up to 80 years in prison if convicted on all counts. She entered the lower Manhattan courtroom on Monday morning without handcuffs but accompanied by two marshals, wearing a creme-colored sweater and black pants.

Twelve jurors and six alternates were sworn in to hear the case, which is expected to last six weeks. Opening statements are set to begin on Monday afternoon.

U.S. District Judge Alison Nathan thanked the jurors for their patience as she worked out last-minute issues with two of them.

“You must keep an open mind until the trial is over,” Nathan told the jurors. “You should not reach any conclusions until you have all the evidence before you.”

Damian Williams, the recently sworn in U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York whose office is prosecuting the case, was briefly present in the courtroom on Monday morning.

Maxwell frequently wrote during the morning proceedings, sometimes handing notes to her lawyers.

NO FISH TO FRY

Maxwell’s lawyers have said that prosecutors, unable to convict Epstein, are using the daughter of late British media magnate Robert Maxwell as a scapegoat. Epstein died by suicide at 66 in 2019 in a Manhattan jail cell while awaiting trial on sex-abuse allegations.

“Left with no fish to attempt to fry, the government belatedly turned to Ms. Maxwell,” her lawyers wrote in a Feb. 4 filing.

Prosecutors have said Maxwell encouraged the girls to massage Epstein while they were fully or partially nude. In some cases, Epstein or Maxwell would pay them cash or offer to pay for their travel or education, and Epstein sometimes masturbated or touched the girls’ genitals during the massages, prosecutors said.

“Victims were made to feel indebted and believed that Maxwell and Epstein were trying to help them,” prosecutors wrote in the indictment. In some instances, Maxwell “was present for and participated in the sexual abuse of minor victims,” they said.

Maxwell’s lawyers have indicated that they will question the credibility of the four alleged victims by asking why they waited to come forward and arguing that they have financial incentives to lie or exaggerate.

“Any accuser who testifies that Ms. Maxwell participated in sex abuse or sex trafficking is not telling the truth,” Maxwell’s lawyers wrote in court papers.

One woman was motivated by a “desire for cash,” they said in a separate filing.

Maxwell’s trial comes in the wake of the #MeToo movement, which has encouraged victims of sexual abuse to speak out against powerful men such as movie producer Harvey Weinstein and R&B singer R. Kelly accused of misconduct. The case against Maxwell stands out in part because she is a woman.

A defense expert witness – psychologist Elizabeth Loftus, who testified for the defense in the rape trial of Weinstein and the murder trial of real estate heir Robert Durst – is expected to testify about how people can be manipulated into having “false memories.”

Some legal experts have said the strategy is risky and that prosecutors would not have charged Maxwell unless they were confident the accusers’ testimonies would withstand scrutiny.

“Victim shaming … doesn’t work especially now in 2021, and it usually hurts you,” said Zachary Margulis-Ohnuma, a New York defense attorney who specializes in sex crimes cases.

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