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Prosecutors keep focus on placing Maxwell at center of Epstein’s sex trafficking ring

“Testimony by the accusers offered a close look at Maxwell’s integral role in their joint scheme, including how she helped procure, groom and normalize abuse,” one expert said.
Photo illustration of Jeffrey Epstein's Palm BEach mansion, Ghislaine Maxwell and Epstein smiling, a court document charging Maxwell, and a courtroom sketch of Maxwell.
Prosecutors and witnesses have said that Ghislaine Maxwell lured teenagers into Jeffrey Epstein's world and "groomed" them to have sex with him and other powerful men. Chelsea Stahl / NBC News

For two weeks prosecutors have been trying to put Ghislaine Maxwell where they want her — at the heart of Jeffrey Epstein’s sex trafficking ring.

Maxwell, the prosecutors have contended during her trial in New York City, was not an unwilling accomplice as the defense has argued — and will continue to argue, they say — now that the government has presented its case and the four women she is accused of trafficking as minors, mostly in the 1990s, have told their stories.

The 59-year-old British socialite lured the teenagers into Epstein’s depraved orbit, “groomed” them to have sex with Epstein and others, and even joined in the orgies, the prosecution’s witnesses have testified.

“The government stayed focused on situating Maxwell at the very center of Epstein’s ring, which was their main goal,” 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 and has been following the Maxwell trial in the Southern District of New York.

“Testimony by the accusers offered a close look at Maxwell’s integral role in their joint scheme, including how she helped procure, groom and normalize abuse,” Tuerkheimer said. “If jurors believe that the accusers testified truthfully and accurately, it will be quite difficult to dismiss Maxwell as an innocent victim herself.”

David Ring, a Los Angeles-based civil trial lawyer who specializes in abuse cases, agreed.

“The prosecution put on a compelling case against Maxwell,” Ring said. “It effectively showed Maxwell was Epstein’s closest confidant, was ‘the lady of the house’ for many years, and that she would easily be involved in helping him procure teenage girls for massages and sexual play.”

To buttress the testimony of the four women, prosecutors have introduced hard evidence like photographs of the infamous massage table where much of the alleged sex abuse the witnesses say took place, journal entries, and flight logs to show they flew on Epstein’s planes.

Epstein’s flights have been the focus of intense media scrutiny ever since it was discovered that former Presidents Donald Trump and Bill Clinton, along with a host of other celebrities like Prince Andrew, took trips on his planes.

So it was no accident that the government's first witness was longtime Epstein pilot Larry Visoski, followed by the first accusing woman, who was identified only as Jane, said Sarah Krissoff, a former federal prosecutor in the Southern District who has led investigations in sex trafficking and crimes against children.

"In my view, the government started strong with its first two witnesses," Krissoff said. "The testimony of Epstein's pilot corroborated the account provided by Jane, and Jane's testimony really is the heart of the government's case."

The prosecutors have also called to the stand other witnesses to corroborate, for example, that the women were frequent visitors to the disgraced financier’s estate in Palm Beach, Florida. They have also produced bank records that show that Epstein deposited millions of dollars into Maxwell’s private account.

But convicting Maxwell, even in a case that has drawn international attention, remains an uphill battle because “sexual abuse cases are exceedingly difficult cases to prove beyond a reasonable doubt, and this case presents a number of unusual twists that add to the prosecution’s burden,” Tuerkheimer said.

One of the twists is that Epstein cannot be put on the stand — the convicted sex abuser hanged himself in a Manhattan jail cell two years ago.

Ring, who is also following the Maxwell trial closely, said he’s not convinced that hurts the prosecution.

“The defense strategy that Maxwell is being unfairly prosecuted because Epstein is dead seemed to fall flat,” he said. “The jury knows Epstein committed these horrible crimes and now they have heard a lot of evidence that Maxwell was intimately involved in those crimes as well.”

Tuerkheimer said Maxwell’s defense team has already been chipping away at the credibility of the four accusers.

“It remains to be seen whether the women will be believed,” Tuerkheimer said. “The defense was predictably aggressive in its cross-examination on inconsistencies and memory gaps, along with delays in reporting. We’re also seeing heavy reliance on the longstanding idea of the 'gold digger,' which even today can readily sway jurors.”

Ring said the defense “was able to show that some of the victims have made inconsistent statements over the years about what Epstein allegedly did or didn’t do to them.”

Also, Maxwell’s defense team raised the issue of “monetary compensation that some of the victims received,” Ring said.

Ring was referring to the Epstein Victims’ Compensation Program, which has paid out nearly $125 million to 135 victims.

“But, at the end of the day, it doesn’t seem like it will make a huge dent in the prosecution’s overall case against Maxwell,” Ring said.

Krissoff said the foundation of the case against Maxwell was always going to rest on "the testimony of the victims."

"Importantly, the government did not oversell that testimony in its opening statement," Krissoff said. "To the contrary, the government plainly laid out the essential facts they expected to elicit from each victim."

Maxwell has pleaded not guilty to all six charges against her.

Here are some of the highlights of the prosecution thus far:

  • The first woman the government put on the stand was identified only as Jane and her story about being just 14 when Maxwell and Epstein spotted her eating ice cream at a Michigan arts camp was not widely known. Her account of being taught personally by Maxwell how to sexually satisfy Epstein helped prosecutors establish several of the counts in the case. The defense countered by asking Jane about the time Epstein took her to meet Trump at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach. No untoward behavior by the future president was alleged, but experts said it took the focus off Maxwell and placed it on Epstein and one of his highest profile buddies.
  • Two of Epstein’s longtime private pilots recalled seeing Jane on flights. “She’s flown with Jeffrey Epstein, Ghislaine Maxwell, and other people as well,“ said pilot David Rodgers, who told the court he worked for Epstein from 1991 to 2019. But both Rodgers and the other pilot, Larry Visoski, insisted they didn’t know Jane was underage and never saw anybody having mile-high sex. Rodgers though, under questioning by Assistant U.S. Attorney Maurene Comey, revealed that Epstein paid for his daughter’s high school and college tuition. “Did you ever let your daughter give Mr. Epstein a massage?” Comey asked. “No,” Rodgers replied.
  • A woman using the pseudonym Kate told the court Maxwell personally lured her into giving Epstein sexualized massages when she was 17. She said that before one of those encounters, Maxwell insisted that she don a “schoolgirl outfit.” She was 18 when that incident allegedly occurred. “I didn’t know how to say no,” she told the court.
  • A woman identified as Carolyn who said she was a minor when she started having sex with Epstein said Maxwell personally inspected her body. “She came in and felt my boobs and my hips and my buttocks and said I had a great body for Mr. Epstein and his friends,” she told the court. Prosecutors then put Carolyn’s former boyfriend on the stand, identified only as Shawn, who said he drove her to Epstein’s Palm Beach mansion for massage sessions every two weeks or so. Shawn said he met Epstein at least once but never ran into Maxwell.
  • Prosecutors saved Annie Farmer, the only one of Maxwell's four accusers to testify under her full real name, for last. She told the jury that she was 16 and visiting Epstein's New Mexico ranch when Maxwell gave her a nude massage and groped her. "I felt kind of frozen," Farmer told the court. "I wanted so badly to get off the table." Epstein wasn't in the room at the time, but Farmer said the door was open and she "has the sense he could see me."