NEW YORK (REUTERS) - Ghislaine Maxwell was found guilty by a US jury on Wednesday (Dec 29) of helping the late financier Jeffrey Epstein sexually abuse teenage girls, sealing a remarkable fall from grace for the British socialite.
Maxwell, 60, was accused of recruiting and grooming four teenagers for Epstein between 1994 and 2004. Her former boyfriend Epstein killed himself in 2019 in a Manhattan jail cell while awaiting trial on sex abuse charges of his own.
Maxwell was convicted on five of six counts, including one count of sex trafficking.
Maxwell’s lawyer, Ms Bobbi Sternheim, told reporters the defence was disappointed with the verdict.
"We have already started working on the appeal, and we are confident that she will be vindicated," Ms Sternheim said outside of the courthouse.
Maxwell faces up to 65 years in prison at her yet-to-be-scheduled sentencing proceeding.
After the verdict was read, Maxwell, wearing a burgundy turtleneck, poured herself a glass of water. Defence attorney Jeffrey Pagliuca patted her upper back. An expressionless Maxwell looked briefly at two siblings seated in the front row as she left the courtroom.
Along with the trials of movie producer Harvey Weinstein and singer R. Kelly, Maxwell's case is among the highest-profile trials to take place in the wake of the #MeToo movement, which encouraged women to speak out about sexual abuse by famous and powerful people.
During the trial's closing arguments in federal court in Manhattan a prosecutor said Maxwell was Epstein's "partner in crime".
"Ghislaine Maxwell made her own choices. She committed crimes hand in hand with Jeffrey Epstein. She was a grown woman who knew exactly what she was doing," Assistant US Attorney Alison Moe said.
Mr Damian Williams, the US attorney for the Southern District of New York, applauded the verdict in a statement that said Maxwell was convicted of "one of the worst crimes imaginable."
"The road to justice has been far too long," his statement said. "But, today, justice has been done. I want to commend the bravery of the girls – now grown women – who stepped out of the shadows and into the courtroom."
Maxwell's attorneys argued she was being used as a scapegoat for Epstein and sought to portray the accounts of her four accusers as not credible, saying their memories had been corrupted over the decades and that they were motivated by money.
"Epstein's death left a gaping hole in the pursuit of justice for many of these women," Maxwell's defence lawyer Bobbi Sternheim said. "She's filling that hole, and filling that empty chair."
Maxwell dated Epstein for several years in the 1990s, when the pair attended high society parties and travelled on luxurious private jets.
A few months after Epstein's death, Maxwell purchased a home for US$1 million (S$1.35 million) in cash in Bradford, New Hampshire where she remained out of the limelight until her July 2020 arrest. An FBI official said Maxwell had "slithered away."
Daughter of British press baron Robert Maxwell, Ghislaine Maxwell had been accustomed to opulence all her life.
Her father founded a publishing house and owned tabloids including the Daily Mirror. He was found dead off his yacht near the Canary Islands in 1991.
US District Judge Alison Nathan did not say when Maxwell would be sentenced. She said she appreciated the jury’s work in the face of surging Covid-19 cases.
"Let me say my sincere thanks on behalf of the court and the parties and myself for your attention, time and service," the judge said.
The jury deliberated for five full days before reaching the verdict.
During the trial, jurors heard emotional and graphic testimony from four women, two of whom said they were 14 when Epstein began abusing them. Three of the women said Maxwell herself had inappropriately touched them.
Prosecutors displayed for the jury a green massage table that was seized from Epstein’s Palm Beach, Florida, estate in 2005. Three of the four accusers said they gave Epstein massages that escalated into sexual activity.
A woman known by the pseudonym Jane testified that she was 14 when Epstein first abused her in 1994.
Maxwell sometimes took part in her sexual encounters with Epstein and acted as if it was normal, Jane testified.
"It made me feel confused because that did not feel normal to me," Jane said. "I'd never seen anything like this or felt anything like this."
Britain’s Prince Andrew, a former friend of Epstein, is defending against a civil lawsuit in Manhattan claiming he sexually abused Ms Virginia Giuffre, another of Epstein’s accusers. The Duke of York has denied her claims.
Ms Moe said during her closing argument that Maxwell's presence made young girls feel comfortable with Epstein. Otherwise, receiving an invitation to spend time with a middle-aged man would have seemed "creepy" and "set off alarm bells," Ms Moe said.
"Epstein could not have done this alone," she said.
Ms Moe reminded jurors of bank records they saw at trial showing that Epstein paid Maxwell millions of dollars over the years. She said Maxwell was motivated to do whatever it took to keep Epstein happy in order to maintain her luxurious lifestyle.
Defence attorney Laura Menninger countered during closing arguments that Maxwell was an "innocent woman" and that prosecutors had not proven beyond a reasonable doubt that Maxwell was aware of or involved in any crimes Epstein committed.
The jury also saw images depicting Maxwell’s and Epstein’s intimate relationship during the 1990s. The never-before-seen digital photographs showed Maxwell kissing Epstein on the cheek or rubbing his bare foot.
Maxwell's lawyers aggressively pushed back on the accusers' accounts during the trial, arguing that their stories had shifted over the years.
Under cross-examination by Ms Menninger, Jane acknowledged that she did not initially tell the FBI everything about Maxwell's involvement because she was not comfortable sharing all the details.
"I was sitting in a room full of strangers and telling them the most shameful, deepest secrets that I'd been carrying around with me my whole life," she said.
Maxwell's defence said the women were motivated by money to implicate Maxwell since all four had received million-dollar awards from a compensation fund for Epstein's victims.
"The money brought the accusers to the FBI," Ms Menninger said, saying the women were accompanied by personal injury lawyers to interviews with law enforcement agents. "Memories have been manipulated in aid of the money."
But the women disputed those characterisations, saying they decided to testify out of a desire for justice, not money.
"Money will not ever fix what that woman has done to me,"testified one woman, known by her first name Carolyn.