© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Defense lawyer Bobbi Sternheim points toward Ghislaine Maxwell standing beside Jeffrey Pagliuca during a pre-trial hearing on charges of sex trafficking, in a courtroom sketch in New York City, U.S., November 23, 2021. REUTERS/Jane Rosenberg/F
By Luc Cohen and Karen Freifeld
NEW YORK (Reuters) -Ghislaine Maxwell’s criminal trial got under way on Monday, with a prosecutor saying the British socialite preyed on underage girls for the late financier Jeffrey Epstein to sexually abuse, while a defense lawyer urged jurors not to turn Maxwell into a scapegoat.
“The charges against Ghislaine Maxwell are for things that Jeffrey Epstein did, but she is not Jeffrey Epstein,” Maxwell’s lawyer, Bobbi Sternheim, said in Manhattan federal court.
Maxwell is on trial for recruiting and grooming four underage girls for Epstein to abuse between 1994 and 2004. Epstein died in jail in 2019 while awaiting trial on sex-abuse charges.
Prosecutors say that Maxwell, a former employee and romantic partner of Epstein’s, sent gifts such as lingerie and discussed sexual topics with the girls to win their trust before encouraging them to give Epstein erotic massages.
“She preyed on vulnerable young girls, manipulated them, and served them up to be sexually abused,” Assistant District Attorney Lara Pomerantz said in her opening statement.
Maxwell, 59, looked on while wearing a cream-colored sweater, black pants and a white face mask amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
She has pleaded not guilty to eight charges of sex trafficking and other crimes, including two counts of perjury that will be tried at a later date.
Maxwell faces up to 80 years in prison if convicted.
The trial comes in the wake of the #MeToo movement, which has encouraged victims of sexual abuse to speak out against powerful men such as movie producer Harvey Weinstein and R&B singer R. Kelly accused of misconduct. Maxwell’s case stands out in part because she is a woman.
The government’s first witness, Lawrence Paul Visoski Jr, a pilot for Epstein, testified that Maxwell sometimes notified him about Epstein’s upcoming travel plans. Visoski described Maxwell as “one of the assistants in the office for Mr. Epstein.”
Four accusers are expected to testify against Maxwell at the trial, which is expected to last until at least early January.
Prosecutors said other witnesses will include family members of the accusers, pilots who flew Epstein and his alleged victims in private planes and former employees at Epstein’s Palm Beach residence.
Prosecutors have said that Maxwell encouraged girls to massage Epstein while they were fully or partially nude.
In some cases, Epstein or Maxwell would pay them cash or offer to pay for their travel or education, and Epstein sometimes masturbated or touched the girls’ genitals during the massages, prosecutors said.
Pomerantz described Maxwell as “essential” to Epstein’s abuses, seeking to undermine the defense’s expected argument that she was not aware of Epstein’s alleged crimes.
“Sometimes, she was even in the room for the massages herself, and sometimes she touched the girls’ bodies,” Pomerantz said.
“And even when she was not in the room, make no mistake: She knew exactly what Epstein was going to do with those children when she sent them to him inside the massage rooms,” Pomerantz said.
Maxwell’s lawyers have said that prosecutors, unable to convict Epstein, are using the daughter of late British media magnate Robert Maxwell as a scapegoat https://www.reuters.com/world/maxwell-challenge-accusers-seek-distance-epstein-sex-abuse-trial-2021-11-23.
Sternheim told jurors that the memories of Maxwell’s accusers had been “manipulated” by lawyers who encouraged them to sue Maxwell and Epstein for damages.
A compensation fund set up after Epstein’s death has been paying claims of accusers from the financier’s estate. Sternheim said Maxwell’s accusers received payouts.
“Memories fade over time and in this case you will learn that not only have memories faded, but they have been contaminated by outside information, constant media reports and other influences,” Sternheim said.