Jury selection begins in Ghislaine Maxwell trial

Jeffrey Epstein will still be in spotlight of former girlfriend's trial though judge rules that certain boldface names cannot be mentioned

After disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein died by suicide behind bars, a judge invited his accusers to court to vent their anger at a man they called a coward for taking his own life to escape accountability for sexually abusing them.

In the coming weeks, Epstein will still, in a way, be prosecuted by proxy: his former girlfriend, Ghislaine Maxwell, will stand trial in Manhattan federal court.

Ms Maxwell, 59, has pleaded not guilty to charges she groomed underage victims to have forced sex with Epstein. She has vehemently denied wrongdoing.

“I have not committed any crime,” Ms Maxwell said at a recent pretrial conference.

The questioning of jurors by Judge Alison J Nathan begins on Tuesday as a pool of more than 600 is whittled down to 12 — and six alternates — before opening statements start on November 29 in Ms Maxwell's trial.

Epstein, who died at age 66, was arrested on multiple sex trafficking charges in New York in 2019. His lawyers contended the charges breached a 2008 non-prosecution deal with federal prosecutors in Miami that secretly ended a federal sex abuse probe involving at least 40 teenage girls. He spent 13 months in jail and paid settlements to victims.

The New York case took a shocking turn when Epstein killed himself while awaiting trial two years ago.

After his death, prosecutors turned their sights on Ms Maxwell.

The trial’s drama will revolve around evidence from four women who say they and others were victimised as teenagers from 1994 to 2004 at Epstein’s estate in Palm Beach, Florida, his posh Manhattan town house and at other residences in Santa Fe, New Mexico and London.

Prosecutors say there is evidence Ms Maxwell knew that the victims, including a 14-year-old, were below the age of consent and arranged travel for some between Epstein’s homes. Defence lawyers are still trying to reduce or eliminate the evidence of one of the four because she was 17 at the time in a jurisdiction where that is not legally considered underage.

Reports that investigators seized Ms Maxwell’s address books have sparked speculation that the trial could explore Epstein’s connections to Prince Andrew, former US president Bill Clinton and lawyer Alan Dershowitz. But the judge has made clear there will be no name-dropping at trial, saying only certain pages of an address book — showing a section naming the alleged victims under the heading “massage” — will come into evidence.

And she blocked prosecutors' attempt to introduce emails they said would show Ms Maxwell tried to select women for other men, saying she was using her access to women “as a form of social currency with other influential men with whom she sought to ingratiate herself".

Epstein’s name, however, is expected to come up frequently and Ms Maxwell's lawyers have complained that she has already suffered from the negative publicity surrounding him.

In a letter to the judge last week, defence lawyer Bobbi Sternheim said her client “is eager for her day in court".

Ms Maxwell “looks forward to her trial and to walking out of the courthouse uncuffed and unshackled following her acquittal”, wrote the lawyer who has repeatedly complained about Ms Maxwell's jail conditions, contending she is being punished for Epstein's suicide by guards who shine a light into her cell every 15 minutes and treat her harshly.

At a hearing last year, during which Ms Maxwell was denied bail, some Epstein accusers made clear they believe she was equally culpable.

One called Ms Maxwell “a sexual predator who groomed and abused me and countless other children and young women".

In a statement read aloud by a prosecutor, another said: “Without Ghislaine, Jeffrey could not have done what he did.”

Updated: November 15th 2021, 3:36 PM