For most of the first week of Ghislaine Maxwell’s federal sex-trafficking trial, the defendant sat motionless in front of her siblings, who looked on from the gallery. Wearing a turtleneck sweater each day, Maxwell occasionally rose to hug her attorney Bobbi Sternheim or whispered intently to other members of her four-lawyer defense team. But for some stretches of testimony, as Maxwell occupied a small corner of the video feed that streams into three overflow courtrooms for reporters and observers, her presence could almost register as an afterthought.
So far, her long-awaited trial has tended to focus more squarely on the crimes she allegedly facilitated than on Maxwell herself. Both prosecutors and defense attorneys have questioned witnesses—including one of Jeffrey Epstein’s sexual abuse accusers, a longtime pilot for his private jets, and a house manager at his Palm Beach residence—about their experiences of the man for whom Maxwell allegedly served as an accomplice. Maxwell faces several federal charges related to the sex trafficking of minors and has pleaded not guilty on all counts.
For the defense, the dynamic may amount to an opportunity to distance Maxwell from Epstein’s abuses. Maxwell’s lawyers have argued that she is merely an Epstein scapegoat, a woman being made to pay for a man’s crimes. For the prosecution, perhaps the initial task is to lay out exactly what was being abetted. The most striking testimony of the trial to date came from Jane (a pseudonym used in the trial proceedings), whom Epstein allegedly began to sexually abuse when she was 14.
“How do you navigate a healthy relationship with a broken compass?” Jane said when asked by Assistant U.S. District Attorney Alison Moe how the trauma affected her relationships as an adult. “I didn’t even understand what real love is supposed to look like. It ruined my self-esteem, my self-worth.”
During cross-examination on Wednesday, Maxwell lawyer Laura Menninger repeatedly tried to trip Jane up on the details of her initial meetings with Epstein and Maxwell, but also questioned her about the nature of her work as an actor. As Jane responded to Menninger, she exhibited both some exhaustion and some recognition of the absurdity of the exercise.
“You consider yourself an actor?” Menninger asked, in a tactic reminiscent of Harvey Weinstein’s defense team in his 2020 trial.
“Not my favorite story line,” Jane said when asked if she had previously played a prostitute.
During Moe’s next round of questioning of Jane, she asked what the difference was between Jane’s job and what she was doing on Tuesday. “Acting on television is not real,” Jane said. “Testifying in court is real.”
Such sideshows have had the effect of keeping Maxwell further out of the picture—this line of questioning was primarily about the victim and Epstein. But as Juan Alessi, who worked as a house manager for Epstein in Palm Beach from the early 1990s until 2002, began to testify on Thursday, the lens of the trial shifted toward a more granular view of the lives Maxwell and Epstein have led.
The house was run “like a five-star hotel,” Alessi said of the instructions he received from Maxwell and Epstein. He interpreted guidelines he was given to mean that he should “be blind, deaf and dumb to say nothing of their lies.” He described a list of instructions that he and other house employees were given as “degrading.”
That kind of treatment has long been known to those who follow the comings and goings of the wealthy pair. But during Maxwell attorney Jeffrey Pagliuca’s cross-examination of Alessi on Friday, the focus twisted back toward the criminal matters at hand.
After Alessi testified that he booked some of Epstein’s massages, Pagliuca asked, “That doesn’t make you guilty of sex trafficking, does it?” Judge Alison Nathan sustained the immediate objection from the prosecution as a roomful of onlookers groaned. The question was aimed at minimizing Maxwell’s culpability, but by then Alessi had already explained that by the end of his tenure, he reported directly to her.
Epstein, he said, “had very little contact with me in the later years.”
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