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The trial of Ghislaine Maxwell: What happened this week

In this courtroom sketch, Ghislaine Maxwell is seated at the defense table while watching the testimony of witnesses during her trial on Tuesday in New York.
Elizabeth Williams
In this courtroom sketch, Ghislaine Maxwell is seated at the defense table while watching the testimony of witnesses during her trial on Tuesday in New York.

The first witnesses in the trial of British socialite Ghislaine Maxwell took the stand this week in a Manhattan federal courtroom.

Maxwell, 59, is accused of recruiting girls and even participating in sexual abuse by financier and convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, who died while in custody in 2019. She's charged with several felony counts, including the trafficking of minors.

It's a case that's caught global attention, in part because of the powerful and famous men who have been linked to Epstein.

The high-profile trial has been swarming with media and curious onlookers. It has also attracted plenty of opportunists in and outside the courtroom, with people using the moment to rail against Covid-19 vaccines, brag about their YouTube following or decry "Satanic courts."

The first accuser takes the witness stand

Both parties have been tight-lipped about the witness list. Four accusers, all of whom are now adults, are expected to testify during what's thought will be a 6-week long trial. The first woman, an actress who went by the pseudonym "Jane," took the stand on Tuesday.

Jane was emotional as she testified that the abuse by Epstein and Maxwell began when she was 14 years old. She told the court that Epstein and Maxwell first approached her at a summer camp for the arts in Michigan, for which Epstein was a donor. The abuse went on until she was 16, Jane said, and Maxwell was often in the room when it happened. She described feeling terrified and ashamed, and said she has carried that shame throughout her life.

A former boyfriend of Jane's testified Wednesday using the pseudonym "Matt." He recalled how when they were dating, Jane told him about a "godfather" who helped her family financially and how she said, "Matt, the money wasn't f****** free." He also recounted a fight between Jane and her mother, in which Jane yelled, "How do you think I got the money, mom?"

Epstein's long-time pilot testified Tuesday that Jane was among the passengers on the financier's private plane. Larry Visoski also said that other guests included former Presidents Bill Clinton and Donald Trump, as well as Britain's Prince Andrew and the late Sen. John Glenn.

Epstein and Maxwell's most high-profile accuser, Virginia Giuffre, is not expected to take the stand. Giuffre has said she was 17 when Epstein and Maxwell started flying her around the world for sex with politicians, royals and billionaires. In a May 2016 deposition, she said Maxwell ordered her to have sex with Prince Andrew and former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, among others. Andrew has publicly denied the accusations, and a spokesperson for Richardson told NPR that "the charges are completely false."

A case of "memory, manipulation and money"

In opening statements, Maxwell's lawyer, Bobbi Sternheim, said that this case is about "memory, manipulation and money." And the defense has grilled witnesses during cross-examination about their ability to accurately remember events that happened some 20 years ago.

Maxwell's team has also questioned why the accusers waited to come forward. During Jane's cross-examination, the defense confronted Jane about having staying silent for so many years, only to hire a personal injury lawyer right as charges against Epstein and Maxwell were being made public.

Jane responded that the delay stems from the victim-shaming that is still very much a part of coming out as a survivor of sexual abuse, adding that it's also why she has chosen to remain anonymous.

An expert witness for the prosecution, psychologist Lisa Rocchio, testified that survivors open up about their experiences when they feel safe doing so.

Maxwell is a silent presence in the courtroom

Glaringly absent in much during the defense so far: much mention of Maxwell. The bulk of their cross examinations have focused on Epstein.

The financier, 66, was arrested in July 2019 and held at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan. He was awaiting trial on charges of sex trafficking of minors and sex trafficking conspiracy when he was found dead in his cell the following month. His death was ruled a suicide.

Epstein's presence is everywhere during Maxwell's trial, despite her pale figure sitting at the end of the defense table. Her team's strategy so far seems to be to minimize Maxwell's role in Epstein's life.

But the prosecution has driven home the point that Maxwell was an integral part of Epstein's life. On Thursday, a former house manager and chauffeur at Epstein's mansion in Palm Beach, Fla., took the stand. Juan Alessi testified that he worked at the estate for nearly a dozen years, describing Maxwell as "the lady of the house." She was with Epstein 95 percent of the time he was there, Alessi noted. She called the shots in the house.

Alessi said he also was tasked with booking many of Epstein's massages, noting, "It gradually went from one massage a day to three." During her testimony Jane said she was repeatedly asked to sexually massage Epstein and that Maxwell had instructed her on what Epstein liked.

During cross-examination, the defense asked Alessi if he ever saw signs of anyone being coerced or hurt during these massages. Did anyone ever ask him for help or tell him they were distressed? "No, they never did," he responded. "But I wish they would have because I would have done something to stop it."

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

Jasmine Garsd is an Argentine-American journalist living in New York. She is currently NPR's Criminal Justice correspondent and the host of The Last Cup. She started her career as the co-host of Alt.Latino, an NPR show about Latin music. Throughout her reporting career she's focused extensively on women's issues and immigrant communities in America. She's currently writing a book of stories about women she's met throughout her travels.
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