“Is this about the woman?” a passerby asked the rows of camera crews assembled outside a Manhattan courthouse early Monday morning.
A line to enter the building had stretched down the street—a roundabout answer to the question. Yes it was about the woman, Ghislaine Maxwell, who, just over two years after Jeffrey Epstein killed himself while awaiting trial in a nearby federal prison, was finally set to stand trial for her alleged role in the financier’s decades of sexual predation.
Maxwell has pleaded not guilty on all counts she faces, including charges related to the sex-trafficking of minors. Prosecutors claim that she groomed girls for Epstein’s abuse and sometimes participated in it herself. Reporters and observers filed into four courtrooms—one for the trial itself, another three to accommodate all the media interest in the case—to watch as the effort to untangle Maxwell’s relationship with Epstein began.
In the afternoon, once a jury for the trial was selected, Maxwell, wearing a white turtleneck sweater, appeared animated as she whispered to her lawyers across a conference table. U.S. Assistant District Attorney Lara Pomerantz presented the government’s opening argument by beginning with one of the alleged victim’s stories.
“I want to tell you about a young girl named Jane,” Pomerantz said. Prosecutors claim that Maxwell and Epstein met Jane when she was 14 years old at a summer camp. “What Jane didn’t know then,” Pomerantz continued, “was that this meeting at summer camp was the beginning of a nightmare that would last for years.”
The prosecution’s case revolves around four of Epstein’s alleged victims. Maxwell “served them up to be sexually abused,” Pomerantz said, claiming that Maxwell made them feel safe around her in order to groom them for Epstein’s abuse. “They made these girls feel seen,” Pomerantz said. “They made them feel special.”
Pomerantz often referred to Maxwell’s jet-setting, arguing that Maxwell recruited the girls as a way to stay close to Epstein and his wealth. “These girls were just a means to support her lifestyle,” Pomerantz said. As she ended her remarks, she seemed to try to get in front of an argument that the defense is expected to make about the motives of victims who have received settlements from the compensation fund for Epstein victims.
“These witnesses would have paid anything for this not to have happened to them,” Pomerantz said. ” They would pay anything to have never met the defendant and Epstein.”
Bobbi Sternheim, Maxwell’s lead attorney, would indeed go on to question the victims motives, but before that, at the start of her roughly hour-long remarks, she zoomed out—about as far out as narratively possible.
“Ever since Eve was tempting Adam with the apple,” Sternheim said as she opened her statement, “women have been blamed for the bad behavior of men.”
The defense’s case, as outlined by Sternheim, focuses on the payments the victims have received and the notion that their memories have purportedly been contaminated by time and the greater Epstein spectacle. “He is not visible,” Sternheim said, “but he’s consuming this entire courtroom and overflow courtrooms.”
At one point, Sternheim began to describe Maxwell as a “scapegoat” before the prosecution objected three times in quick succession. Judge Alison Nathan had ruled in a pretrial conference that arguments about the government’s motivations for pursuing the Maxwell case were inadmissible. After Sternheim and the four prosecutors conferred with Nathan, Sternheim returned to a perhaps narrower version of the scapegoat argument: “Four women will come into this courtroom and they will point a finger at Ghislaine Maxwell.”
Like Pomerantz, Sternheim addressed the matter of Maxwell’s lifestyle, telling jurors that during jury selection, “You all agreed that you would not be biased by affluence or opulence, and your word is your bond.” She also seemed to prepare jurors for the lines of questioning that the defense would take with victims: “There is no interest in asking those questions to shame anyone.”
Before the day was out, the government called Lawrence Visoski, a pilot who operated Epstein’s fleet of private jets for nearly three decades, as their first witness, setting in motion a trial that is expected to last six weeks as it traces through a long trail of Maxwell’s and Epstein’s histories.
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