Partners or Partners in Crime? Maxwell-Epstein Bond Is Key to Her Trial

The first week of testimony at Ghislaine Maxwell’s sex-trafficking trial revealed the key question at the center of the case.,

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Larry Visoski, the silver-haired pilot who flew Jeffrey Epstein and his prominent friends all over the world, believed Ghislaine Maxwell and Mr. Epstein had been a couple at some point, he told jurors last week at Ms. Maxwell’s sex-trafficking trial.

And Ms. Maxwell had unique authority, Mr. Visoski said: In Mr. Epstein’s households, she was second in command only to Mr. Epstein himself. She was his “No. 2,” he said.

Later, when one of Ms. Maxwell’s lawyers cross-examined Mr. Visoski, the questioning zeroed in on the specifics of the relationship between Mr. Epstein and Ms. Maxwell. It “wasn’t totally clear” if they were ever in a romantic relationship, Mr. Visoski acknowledged. He had never seen them kiss or hold hands, he said. At one point he described Ms. Maxwell as merely “one of the assistants” in Mr. Epstein’s office.

It was the first of several moments of testimony during the first week of Ms. Maxwell’s federal trial in Manhattan that underlined how the trial may hinge at least in part on the precise nature of her partnership with Mr. Epstein, whose shadow looms over the case even in death.

Beginning with opening statements and the questioning of witnesses, the crux of the case has become clear: Were Ms. Maxwell and Jeffrey Epstein partners, or partners in crime?

The first week of testimony showed prosecutors are trying to convince the jury that Ms. Maxwell was not only Mr. Epstein’s household manager and key employee but also his close associate who had unique access to his private life. And the defense has sought to divorce Ms. Maxwell from Mr. Epstein’s infamy, arguing that her presence in his life does not make her complicit.

Ms. Maxwell, 59, has pleaded not guilty to charges that she recruited, groomed and ultimately helped Mr. Epstein abuse young girls. He was awaiting trial on sex-trafficking charges when he died in a Manhattan jail cell.

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Audrey Strauss, acting U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, points to a photo of Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell during a news conference in 2020.Credit…John Minchillo/Associated Press

Prosecutors have repeatedly tried to place Ms. Maxwell and Mr. Epstein together, describing her as his “right hand,” and saying she was involved in “every detail of Epstein’s life.” They said she imposed strict rules for the staff and enforced a “culture of silence,” which allowed their abuse of minors to remain hidden.

The government has suggested that their long, close relationship makes her culpable, even where she might not have been present for abuse that they say he carried out.

Ms. Maxwell “walked the girls into a room where she knew that man would molest them,” a prosecutor, Lara Pomerantz, said in the government’s opening statement. “She knew what was going to happen to those girls.”

But Ms. Maxwell’s lawyers, wherever possible, have sought to disassociate their client from Mr. Epstein, saying the two were often apart — keeping their own homes and traveling separately — and that Mr. Epstein spent time with other women.

Mr. Epstein “compartmentalized his life,” Bobbi C. Sternheim, one of Ms. Maxwell’s lawyers, told the jury in an opening statement on Monday, “showing only what he wanted to show to the people around him, including Ghislaine.”

Ms. Sternheim suggested Ms. Maxwell was only on trial because of her association with Mr. Epstein. “She is a scapegoat for a man who behaved badly,” she said.

The opposing visions of the relationship at the center of the case became clear quickly last Monday, the trial’s first day, when the prosecution called one of Ms. Maxwell’s accusers, a woman identified only as Jane, to the witness stand.

She offered vivid testimony about how, at the age of 14 in 1994, she was eating ice cream with friends at a summer arts camp in Michigan when a “tall, thin woman” approached her with a “cute little Yorkie.”

Jane said the woman — Ms. Maxwell — was joined “a minute later” by a man who introduced himself as Mr. Epstein and talked with her about her interests. That brief encounter, Jane said, led to an invitation to Mr. Epstein’s Palm Beach home for tea. That, in turn, led to regular visits with him and Ms. Maxwell, which soon gave way to her being sexually abused by both.

But during cross-examination, Laura Menninger, another defense lawyer, focused on what she suggested was evidence that Jane’s account of Ms. Maxwell’s involvement in the abuse had shifted and expanded in recent years.

Citing Jane’s first meeting with the government in September 2019, Ms. Menninger said an F.B.I. agent’s notes showed she had given a different version of the summer camp encounter, in which Mr. Epstein, not Ms. Maxwell, had first approached the table.

“What you told the government,” Ms. Menninger said, “is that Ghislaine walked by with her dog, and Jeffrey Epstein came up to meet you, correct?”

“I wouldn’t have said that,” Jane said.

Had the F.B.I. had made a mistake in the note taking? Ms. Menninger asked.

“Maybe they typed it up wrong,” Jane said.

After Ms. Menninger confronted Jane with other inconsistencies between what she earlier told investigators and her trial testimony, Jane replied, “Memory is not linear.”

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Jeffrey S. Pagliuca, left, and Laura A. Menninger, two of Ms. Maxwell’s defense lawyers, arrived at the courthouse in Lower Manhattan for the fifth day of her trial.Credit…Dave Sanders for The New York Times

In another example of each side’s contrasting approach in the trial, prosecutors introduced testimony and evidence of a set of strict rules governing Mr. Epstein’s households: nondisclosure agreements for employees, even a 58-page “Household Manual” for staff, instructing them not to make eye contact with Mr. Epstein and mandating they “NEVER disclose Mr. Epstein or Ms. Maxwell’s activities or whereabouts to anyone” unless otherwise instructed.

The prosecution has made it clear that Ms. Maxwell was a driving force behind these rules.

“That was by design, the defendant’s design,” Ms. Pomerantz told the jury, “because behind closed doors, the defendant and Epstein were committing heinous crimes. They were sexually abusing teenage girls.”

Understand the Ghislaine Maxwell Trial

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An Epstein confidant. Ghislaine Maxwell, the daughter of a British media mogul and once a fixture in New York’s social scene, was a longtime companion of Jeffrey Epstein, who killed himself after his arrest on sex trafficking charges in 2019.

The trial. The highly anticipated trial of Ms. Maxwell began on Nov. 29, 2021, in Manhattan. Her sex trafficking trial is widely seen as a proxy for the courtroom reckoning that Mr. Epstein never received.

The charges. Ms. Maxwell is accused of recruiting and grooming minors — one girl as young as 14 — for sexual acts with Mr. Epstein and others. She will be tried on six counts, including transporting minors to engage in criminal sexual activity.

The prosecution’s case. Prosecutors say Ms. Maxwell psychologically manipulated young girls in order to “groom” them for Mr. Epstein. The concept of grooming is at the heart of the criminal case against her.

The defense. Ms. Maxwell’s lawyers have sought to undermine the credibility of her accusers and question the motives of prosecutors — efforts they have indicated they would continue at trial. Ms. Maxwell has steadfastly maintained her innocence.

In the hands of Ms. Maxwell’s lawyers, though, these measures were the sensible precautions of a wealthy man who entertained powerful people, and who kept aspects of his life extremely private — including from Ms. Maxwell.

“He kept parts of his life locked from others,” Ms. Sternheim told the jury.

The defense, in cross-examination of the pilot, Mr. Visoski, elicited testimony that nondisclosure agreements were common in his line of work, especially when dealing with “high-profile people.”

“It’s a fairly normal request,” Mr. Visoski said, adding that he had never seen illegal activity onboard Mr. Epstein’s plane.

And as Mr. Epstein’s property manager, the defense suggested, Ms. Maxwell naturally had a role in enforcing the household rules, as well as supervising construction on Mr. Epstein’s private island, managing cleaning and repairs and taking care of the horses and other animals on his Santa Fe ranch.

Each side’s differing approach has also surfaced in debates held outside the jury’s presence.

In one such episode on Friday morning, the parties skirmished over whether prosecutors could show the jury a suggestive photograph that appeared briefly in a video of a 2005 law enforcement search of Mr. Epstein’s Palm Beach house, which the government wanted to play for the jury.

The image depicts “a sexualized photograph of a clearly underage female” lying in Mr. Epstein’s lap, a prosecutor, Maurene Comey, told the judge. She said the photograph hung by the entrance to Mr. Epstein’s bedroom — a bedroom Ms. Maxwell almost always shared with him when they were at that residence, another former employee testified last week.

Mr. Everdell argued that the image should be redacted on grounds it was prejudicial, particularly given there were no allegations Mr. Epstein or Ms. Maxwell were involved with prepubescent girls.

But Ms. Comey said the photo countered the defense’s depiction of Mr. Epstein as an “upstanding citizen who was surrounded by presidents and all sorts of important prominent people.”

Ms. Comey said she believed Ms. Maxwell’s lawyers were “setting up an argument” that Ms. Maxwell could not have possibly known Mr. Epstein was attracted to young girls because someone who spent so much time with such luminaries “couldn’t possibly have such a vile attraction.”

“This photograph is directly contradicting that argument,” Ms. Comey said, suggesting that the photograph and its location said as much about Ms. Maxwell as it did about Mr. Epstein.

The judge, Alison J. Nathan, agreed to let the jury see the image of the photograph in the video, saying, “I think the context is different than the photo in isolation.”

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