The British socialite Ghislaine Maxwell is the one accused of sex trafficking, but during the first five days of testimony in a New York City courtroom her lawyers have put her deceased boss, Jeffrey Epstein, and his famous friends on trial, legal experts say.
That strategy quickly became evident on the first day of the long-awaited trial when attorney Bobbi Sternheim, in her opening statement, dipped into the book of Genesis to defend Maxwell.
“Ever since Eve was tempting Adam with the apple, women have been blamed for the bad behavior of men,” Sternheim said. “She is not Jeffrey Epstein, she is not like Jeffrey Epstein.”
In fact, Maxwell’s defense team is subtly trying to portray her as Epstein’s first victim, the experts said.
“In an effort to make Maxwell ‘Eve’ to Epstein’s ‘Adam,’ as her lawyer suggested in the opening statement, we can expect the defense to do whatever it can to keep the spotlight on his manipulative, grooming behavior,” said Deborah Tuerkheimer, a professor of law at Northwestern University, who served five years as an assistant district attorney in the New York County District Attorney’s Office.
The defense is also keeping the spotlight on the powerful men who were in Epstein’s orbit, such as former President Donald Trump and Britain’s Prince Andrew, the experts said.
“The defense has signaled its intention to make Epstein central to this trial,” Tuerkheimer said. “By portraying him as charismatic, well-connected, almost larger than life, her team may well be hoping to make Maxwell disappear into the background. Epstein’s star-studded life of fame and riches can grab the jury’s attention and focus, increasing the odds that Maxwell appears as a merely peripheral figure in the story.”
Robert Sanders, a retired captain in the Navy Judge Advocate General's Corps and the head of the University of New Haven’s national security department, said the strategy Maxwell’s lawyers are following can be likened to a #MeToo defense.
“The #MeToo movement is not over,” he said. “The defense is trying to make the point that Epstein and all these men were involved, but they are unavailable to be prosecuted, but we’ve got her.”
Epstein, a convicted sex offender, hanged himself two years ago in a Manhattan jail while awaiting a sex trafficking trial.
On Day Three of Maxwell's trial, another member of her legal team, Laura Menninger, brought up Trump, an Epstein neighbor who had partied at the financier’s Palm Beach, Florida, mansion.
Menninger asked Jane — a pseudonym for the first of four women at this trial who have accused the 59-year-old Maxwell of “grooming” them when they were underage to have sex with Epstein and other powerful men — to confirm that she was driven by Epstein to Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach to meet the future president when she was just 14.
During her cross-examination of Jane, an actor by profession, Menninger did not press her for details about her meeting with Trump or allege he abused her in any way.
Nor did she have to, California defense attorney Jesse Gessin said.
“The strategy of cross-examining about famous names achieves several objectives for the defense,” he said. “First, Team Maxwell’s overarching theme is Ms. Maxwell is a scapegoat. The government’s failure to prosecute these individuals supports this central theme.”
Also, Gessin said, “the defense must own as many undisputed facts as possible in its narrative in every case.”
“With a matter as extensively covered in the media as this one, most, if not all, jurors know these names are associated with Epstein,” he said. “Ignoring or disavowing these names would be a technical blunder. “
In fact, the first of the seven people who testified in the opening week of the Maxwell trial was Epstein’s longtime pilot, Larry Visoski.
The flights on Epstein’s private planes became the focus of intense media scrutiny after it was discovered that Andrew, son of Queen Elizabeth II, and other boldfaced names such as former President Bill Clinton and lawyer Alan Dershowitz took trips on his planes. There are no allegations of trafficking against Clinton and Dershowitz.
Visoski, in his testimony Tuesday, also mentioned that several other well-known men, such as the former astronaut and senator John Glenn, the actors Kevin Spacey and Chris Tucker, and the violinist Itzhak Perlman, flew on Epstein’s planes. He said Trump was a repeat flyer before he became president.
“There was more than once, I believe,” he said. “I certainly remember President Trump but not anyone else associated with him.”
Trump, who once called Epstein a “terrific guy,” has not responded to requests from NBC News for comment.
Following Epstein’s 2019 arrest, Trump told reporters that he was “not a fan” of the disgraced financier.
The four women Maxwell is accused of trafficking, mostly in the 1990s, have been assigned pseudonyms to protect their privacy. Jane’s ex-boyfriend, an actor who testified that she told him that Maxwell and Epstein seduced her at age 14, took the stand using the pseudonym Matt.
Maxwell has pleaded not guilty to all six charges leveled against her. Her trial in the Southern District of New York, which is expected to go another five weeks, resumes Monday.