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As Ghislaine Maxwell trial opens, prosecutors allege a 'pyramid scheme of abuse'

Ghislaine Maxwell sits at the defense table during the final stages of jury selection on Monday in New York City in this courtroom sketch. Opening statements in her trial on sex trafficking charges began Monday.
Elizabeth Williams
Ghislaine Maxwell sits at the defense table during the final stages of jury selection on Monday in New York City in this courtroom sketch. Opening statements in her trial on sex trafficking charges began Monday.

Updated November 29, 2021 at 5:41 PM ET

Opening statements began Monday in the federal sex-trafficking trial of Ghislaine Maxwell, the once prominent socialite who stands accused of helping disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein exploit and abuse multiple girls, including one as young as 14, over nearly a decade.

In the aftermath of Epstein's apparent death by suicide in 2019, the highly anticipated trial is seen as the government's best, and perhaps last, opportunity to secure a conviction for his alleged crimes.

Opening statements started on Monday afternoon after the final members of a 12-person jury were selected and the jury was impaneled.

Prosecution intends to show Maxwell was "essential" to Epstein's abuse

Assistant U.S. Attorney Lara Pomerantz began by telling the story of a woman, identified with the pseudonym Jane Doe, who says she was 14 years old when Epstein and Maxwell approached her at a camp.

Pomerantz alleged that Epstein and Maxwell ran a "pyramid scheme of abuse" and that Doe, who would go on to be sexually abused and exploited for years, was "not the only one."

"They were partners in crime. They had a playbook," Pomerantz said of Epstein and Maxwell.

Prosecutors repeatedly used the words "children" and "kids" to describe the alleged victims and painted a picture of Epstein and Maxwell targeting victims from poor and broken families.

They said they intend to prove that Maxwell was "essential" to Epstein's abuse of girls and that she was a predator herself and did it to stay a part of Epstein's lavish lifestyle.

Ghislaine Maxwell, shown here in 2013, is facing trial on accusations of sex trafficking.
Laura Cavanaugh / Getty Images
Getty Images
Ghislaine Maxwell, shown here in 2013, is facing trial on accusations of sex trafficking.

Defense lawyer Bobbi Sternheim, meanwhile, said Maxwell was being blamed for Epstein's actions.

"Ever since Eve was accused of tempting Adam for the apple, women have been villainized," she said, adding that "Epstein is not on trial. ... He's the proverbial elephant in the room."

Defense lawyers said they intend to show that the accusers' memories can be wrong and can be manipulated by press coverage.

The trial is not being televised or streamed online. And while a video feed from the courtroom is being shown in an adjacent overflow room, attendees are barred from photographing or broadcasting the proceedings.

What are the criminal charges against Maxwell?

Maxwell, 59, is being tried on multiple trafficking-related counts, including enticing minors to travel to engage in illegal sex acts and sex trafficking a minor. The indictment also accuses her of conspiracy, including using one of Epstein's victims to "recruit other girls to engage in paid sex acts with Epstein, which she did."

Maxwell has pleaded not guilty.

The government has sought to portray Maxwell as the chief coordinator of a sadistic trafficking ring that victimized teenage girls for Epstein's benefit.

Prosecutors for the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York allege that from around 1994 until at least 2004, Maxwell "assisted, facilitated, and contributed to Jeffrey Epstein's abuse of minor girls by, among other things, helping Epstein to recruit, groom, and ultimately abuse" their victims.

Who will testify in the case?

Along with the alleged victims, the prosecution and defense will each call on experts to tell the jury how they evaluate the claims against Maxwell.

The prosecution's likely witnesses include Lisa Rocchio, a clinical instructor at the Alpert Medical School of Brown University who is an expert in treating people who suffered sexual abuse as minors. According to court filings, she will discuss topics such as how sexual predators groom their victims and the reasons why victims might not realize or report that they were abused.

The defense's roster includes Park Dietz, a forensic psychiatrist who has testified in a number of high-profile cases. In the Maxwell trial, he's expected to testify that the concept of "grooming" can be difficult to define and evaluate, often relying on hindsight after abuse has been reported. Dietz will also discuss how positive traits such as wealth and charisma can create a "halo effect" to mask negative behavior — possibly bolstering the defense's claim that Maxwell was also under Epstein's influence.

Maxwell's attorneys will also likely call on Elizabeth Loftus, a professor at University of California, Irvine who is an authority on human memory. In a court filing, the defense said Loftus' testimony will focus on how memory works — and how it can be vulnerable to suggestion and the creation of false memories.

"In particular 'memories' can be described with confidence, detail and emotion, even when they are false," the defense said in its outline of Loftus' planned testimony.

How did the alleged sex-trafficking ring work?

Maxwell worked to help Epstein gain control over his victims, the government alleges, by identifying attractive minors and young women and asking them about their lives, their schools and their families. She would then offer them a job: providing a massage to Epstein.

Once they developed a rapport, Maxwell would try to "normalize sexual abuse," prosecutors say, by talking about sexual topics and undressing in front of them. In more extreme cases, she would be in the room when Epstein sexually abused girls in order to help "put the victims at ease," according to the government.

The government's case focuses on a lengthy period in which Maxwell "was in an intimate relationship with Epstein" and was being paid by Epstein to manage his properties. It zeroes in on the abuse of four unnamed victims — three of whom prosecutors say Maxwell recruited from 1994 to 1997 — as well as a 14-year-old girl who, the government says, was groomed to engage in sexual acts with Epstein between 2001 and 2004.

During the trial, the victims and others can use pseudonyms to protect their privacy, under a ruling by District Judge Alison J. Nathan.

The sexual abuse allegedly took place at several of Epstein's properties, including his home on Manhattan's Upper East Side; an estate in Palm Beach, Fla.; and a ranch in Santa Fe, N.M.; as well as at Maxwell's home in London, according to court documents.

Will accusations against powerful men be heard?

Virginia Giuffre, Maxwell's and Epstein's most visible accuser, who has said their alleged misdeeds also included procuring underage girls for Epstein's wealthy and powerful friends, is not expected to testify in the trial.

In her deposition that was made public last year, Giuffre named a number of high-profile men with whom she said she was told to have sex, including Britain's Prince Andrew, former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell and attorney Alan Dershowitz. All three men have denied the allegations.

By excluding Giuffre from the case, prosecutors are dodging a potential risk. Records, photos and witness statements have supported her claims, but as Giuffre herself has acknowledged, there have been inconsistencies in her timeline of key events.

Prosecutors will draw on Maxwell's own records — her "black book," a record of friends and contacts. The FBI acquired a copy of the book in 2009 when Epstein's former butler, Alfredo Rodriguez, attempted to sell it.

The prosecution has said it plans to use only limited portions of the book. But it also says testimony during the trial will prove that the book belonged to Maxwell and that it contains "compelling evidence of her guilt," according to a recent court filing.

NPR's Jasmine Garsd contributed reporting to this story.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.
James Doubek is an associate editor and reporter for NPR. He frequently covers breaking news for NPR.org and NPR's hourly newscast. In 2018, he reported feature stories for NPR's business desk on topics including electric scooters, cryptocurrency, and small business owners who lost out when Amazon made a deal with Apple.