NEW YORK — On the cold, gray Monday morning after Thanksgiving, Ghislaine Maxwell became the first person to stand trial in connection with Jeffrey Epstein’s alleged sexual abuse of girls.
Maxwell, the 59-year-old British socialite and ex-girlfriend of Epstein, stands accused in New York’s Southern District of six counts related to the sexual trafficking of girls, accused of recruiting and grooming four girls as young as 14 for Epstein’s gratification over the course of a decade, between 1994 and 2004. She is accused of participating in the abuse of one of the girls herself. If convicted, Maxwell could face decades behind bars.
Monday was the official start of the trial, although parties were still finalizing selection of jurors to hear the evidence.
Alleged victims of Maxwell and Epstein were among more than 100 people waiting outside the federal courthouse in lower Manhattan early in the morning hoping to witness what they see as their first chance at justice.
“I can’t believe this day has come,” said Sarah Ransome, a South African woman who successfully sued Maxwell and Epstein in 2017 for trafficking her when she was 22. “I’m here to support the victims.”
Ransome, who is not testifying in the case, said she had a restless night of sleep and has been anxious about the trial ever since Maxwell was first arrested in July 2020 at a 156-acre estate in New Hampshire, where Maxwell had been living under the radar.
“Everyone’s been scratching their heads this last year,” Ransome said. “I’ve been very nervous.”
While the federal judge presiding over the trial, U.S. District Judge Alison J. Nathan, has emphasized that victims and Maxwell’s family would be ensured access to the trial, Ransome, nevertheless, was forced to wait outside in the bitter cold.
“I’m actually appalled,” she said.
Maxwell’s arrest in the New Hampshire home, which had been purchased through an anonymous shell company months before and which she had toured using a pseudonym, came nearly one year after Epstein was arrested on federal sex charges. He died one month later in a federal prison in New York before his case went to trial.
Epstein had negotiated a strikingly favorable deal with federal prosecutors in the Southern District of Florida more than a decade, an arrangement that had been the subject of the Miami Herald’s 2018 "Perversion of Justice" series. The renewed attention to Epstein’s deal, which allowed him to plead guilty to two prostitution charges and serve his sentence in a county jail, led federal prosecutors to reexamine his case and bring new charges against the financier. Alexander Acosta, the federal prosecutor who had signed off on Epstein’s plea, resigned from his position as U.S. secretary of labor in January 2019 in response to the backlash.
Maxwell has been held in federal custody since her July 2020 arrest, deemed a flight risk and denied release on bail four separate times. Her lawyers have argued about her conditions in the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, which include constant monitoring and what they have described as inedible food and undrinkable water. At one point, one of her attorney’s compared her conditions to that of the fictional serial killer Hannibal Lecter as portrayed in the film "The Silence of the Lambs."
In the weeks leading up to trial, Maxwell’s legal team and federal prosecutors have fought to define the boundaries of what could be discussed before the jury. Maxwell’s team won partial victories in limiting the testimony of two of the four accusers but lost their bid to block prosecutors from referring to the accusers as “victims.”
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