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Ghislaine Maxwell's guilty verdict exposes defense's victim-blaming disgrace

Ghislaine Maxwell's defense strategy hinged on blaming, shaming and dismantling the testimony of four women.

"Your honor, the government has not proven its case beyond a reasonable doubt and so there is no need for me to testify." These were the only words spoken by Ghislaine Maxwell during her two-week trial on sex trafficking and other felony charges. Seemingly content with the state of the evidence, the British socialite and her defense team rested their case on the assumption that the victims would not be believed. In fact, the entire defense strategy hinged on blaming, shaming and dismantling the testimony of the four women, who say they met Maxwell and the financier Jeffrey Epstein as children and who told jurors that Maxwell enabled and participated in their sexual abuse. (Maxwell denied all charges, pleading not guilty.) Jurors disagreed, finding Maxwell guilty on five of the six charges against her.

Perhaps the defense team should have paid more attention to R. Kelly’s trial, which concluded just a couple months before Maxwell’s began.

Perhaps the defense team should have paid more attention to the singer R. Kelly’s trial, which concluded just a couple months before Maxwell’s began, or former Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein’s sexual assault trial last year.

Kelly also attempted to dismantle the credibility of his victims, insisting that a man of his stature wouldn’t need to ever “force” anyone into sexual acts. Instead, his defense team claimed that the “groupie” victims were making up allegations to railroad him for financial gain. But jurors rejected those claims and Kelly faces a life sentence when he heads from his jail cell to the courthouse for a sentencing hearing in May.

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In Maxwell’s case, the jury not only had to believe that Epstein sexually abused the alleged victims, but also that Maxwell helped. Like Kelly and other prominent men accused of sexual abuse, the Maxwell defense relied heavily on the theory that these women were lying to get paid. During cross-examination, Maxwell’s accusers were attacked for waiting to make their allegations, and for seeking compensation from the Epstein Victims' Fund.

These smears were layered in with other attacks, such as the implication that “Jane,” a professional actress, was merely putting on a show at trial; that “Kate,” who had struggled with substance abuse (which is both a vulnerability factor and coping mechanism for many sexual assault survivors) was an addict whose story could not be trusted.

The defense maneuvered into a new attack on the victims’ credibility during its own case in chief, injecting the concept of “false memory” in the hopes that the jury would conclude that even if the victims were in fact sexually abused by Epstein, the details including Maxwell were false or exaggerated. The defense called Elizabeth Loftus, a psychologist and professor at the University of California, Irvine, to explain that “even traumatic experiences can be subjected to post-event suggestion that can exaggerate, distort or change the memory.” Loftus testified similarly in Weinstein’s defense. (He was convicted of third-degree rape and a count of criminal sexual act in the first degree in New York last year and faces additional charges in Los Angeles.)

On cross-examination, Loftus conceded that while “peripheral memories” from a traumatic event may be forgotten, “core memories” may in fact get stronger. Apparently hoping that the victims' memories of Maxwell were merely “periphery,” the defense continued to bank on them not being believed, either in whole or in part.

As a final hedge, the defense tried to argue that even if sexual abuse occurred, Epstein was exclusively responsible and Maxwell was being unfairly blamed. But for this theory to hold up, the jury would need to reject key details of the accusers’ testimony.

Jane” testified that Maxwell instructed her on how Epstein liked to be massaged. “Kate” testified that Maxwell brought her into Epstein’s room, giving her massage oil. After the molestation occurred, Maxwell reportedly confirmed that Epstein liked it. The next time Maxwell brought “Kate” into the room, “Kate” said that Epstein was standing there naked. Maxwell, “Kate” testified, told them to “have a good time.” She later asked Kate to wear a schoolgirl outfit for Epstein, and requested she bring other girls over for oral sex because Epstein “needed sex about three times a day.” “Carolyn” testified that Maxwell touched her breasts and butt and said she had a “great body for Epstein and his friends.” Annie Farmer also testified to being molested by Maxwell during a “massage,” which served as a gateway to sexual abuse by Epstein. These memories sound more “core” than “periphery.” The fact that Epstein was allegedly worse doesn’t legally or morally alleviate Maxwell’s own responsibility.

The American legal system has long recognized the responsibility of everyone who participates in a crime, not just the main bad actor. Especially in the context of organized crime and gang prosecution, aiding and abetting is a common thread.

Abuse in this case, prosecutors successfully argued, was not a single act or acts carried out by a lone predator. Instead, the prosecution proved a vast abusive structure, built on the power dynamics created by Epstein and Maxwell. The prosecution explained how Maxwell recruited and groomed the alleged victims, paving the way for abuse. They argued her role was further solidified by her own encounters with victims in sexual situations. Seeing the victims and Epstein naked, demonstrating massage techniques, touching victims’ breasts, and normalizing their traumatic experiences — all of these facts make it hard to distinguish Maxwell’s conduct from Epstein’s sexual abuse operation, according to prosecutors.

And that leads us back to her defense. Maxwell's lawyers seem to have believed her best hope was to blame and discredit the alleged victims. But that’s a defense strategy that doesn’t appear to be as effective as it once was.