Ghislaine Maxwell appeared tantalisingly close to her old self as she sat in a New York courtroom for much of the last month.
Dressed in an assortment of comfortable sweaters and tailored slacks instead of prison garb, her hair was brushed out, and she exuded the magnetism of her socialite days as she smiled at family and friends sitting in the gallery behind her. Only when the court adjourned for the day would the illusion melt as Maxwell was escorted out the door by a US marshal and back to her jail cell.
But on Wednesday evening, on the sixth day of deliberations, a 12-person jury shattered the illusion, sending Maxwell, 60, back to her cell, possibly for the rest of her days, after finding her guilty on five of six criminal charges for aiding her former companion, Jeffrey Epstein, in the sexual abuse of girls as young as 14.
It was a stunning verdict, particularly after lengthy deliberations. The question now is what will Maxwell do next — and what other illusions might crack.
Maxwell’s lawyers said on Wednesday night they were working on an appeal. But, facing as much as 65 years in prison, she could soon conclude it is in her interest to co-operate with authorities after years of thwarting them. If so, that could lead to charges against other figures in the Epstein operation, such as other former assistants, who may have helped administer what US authorities alleged was a “pyramid scheme” to recruit dozens of underage girls for abuse.
Maxwell’s co-operation would also bring fresh scrutiny to the wealthy and powerful men who consorted with Epstein — who died by suicide in jail in 2019 — and to whom, his accusers allege, they were trafficked.
“I don’t think this is the end,” said David Boies, whose firm, Boies Schiller, represents Virginia Roberts Giuffre, one of the first Epstein accusers to go public — and who is now suing his former friend, Britain’s Prince Andrew, for sexual abuse. Prince Andrew has denied the allegations.
“She now has nothing to lose,” Boies said of Maxwell. “At one point she may have wanted to preserve her relationships with rich and powerful people. But those people are not going to do her any good in the penitentiary.”
Given the weight of the jury’s verdict, freedom may no longer be an option, he argued. But naming names might allow her to spend some of her remaining years outside prison. (Boies has faced his own criticism for defending Harvey Weinstein, the Hollywood producer convicted of rape last year).
The Maxwell trial will have other, more immediate reverberations. It may be a landmark moment in which the traditional defence playbook of “blaming the victims” in such cases and smearing their character failed.
Maxwell’s legal team, led by Bobbi Sternheim and Laura Menninger, did so with zeal. Their defence was almost entirely devoted to brutal cross-examinations of four women accusers who testified against Maxwell.
The lawyers argued that the witnesses were liars, twisting the truth in pursuit of a “jackpot” in financial compensation. One accuser’s past drug abuse was recounted. Another was accused of lying about her family’s financial strain after her father’s sudden death. Most were moved to tears at one point or another as Menninger grilled them over the specifics of what occurred, in some cases, more than 20 years ago.
As the jury’s deliberations stretched past Christmas and they requested to review more testimony, many legal analysts believed the defence strategy was working. Then the verdict arrived.
“The verdict sends a clear message that we can no longer tolerate blaming sexual abuse survivors who have the courage to come forward. I’m so pleased to see that these brave women were believed, and that a defendant with means has been held to account,” said Barry Salzman, a senior partner at Barasch & McGarry in New York, who has represented several Epstein victims.
Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond, predicted Maxwell would file an appeal, “because she has little to lose at this point”. But, he added, “Maxwell will have difficulty overturning the verdict, because Judge [Alison] Nathan is a skilled judge and the trial seemed fair.”
Meanwhile, for Roberts Giuffre, the verdict was less a cause for celebration than relief, according to those who know her. She was far away, in her adopted home of Australia with her family, when it was read.
She sued Maxwell for defamation in 2015 after being called a liar for her public claims of abuse. That suit was eventually settled but it created a mountain of documentation about Epstein and Maxwell’s world that was seized on by journalists and lawyers.
Among the trove was a deposition given by Maxwell in which she claimed to have no knowledge of Epstein’s scheme to recruit underage girls or the sex toys at his properties. That deposition eventually resulted in criminal perjury charges against her, which are still pending.
“My soul yearned for justice for years and today the jury gave me just that. I will remember this day always,” Roberts Giuffre said in a statement after the verdict.
In a worrying sign for other Epstein associates, she also made clear that she did not consider the matter finished. “I hope that today is not the end but rather another step in justice being served,” she said. “Maxwell did not act alone. Others must be held accountable. I have faith that they will be.”