Outside the Thurgood Marshall federal courthouse in lower Manhattan this morning, the media throng assembled to cover day one of the Ghislaine Maxwell trial. Print reporters, newsletter writers, podcasters, and television crews coalesced into the strangely glamorous frenzy that seems to accompany the launch of every high-profile criminal proceeding.
I’ve seen it before. It always starts this way, in mystery and frisson. And it always ends in the quotidian squalor that is the reality of crime.
When Michael Jackson’s trial for child sexual abuse charges was getting underway, the media (including me) revved up to cover the bizarre tale of an eccentric global superstar. And then the trial began, and we met a dim, lonely drunk who liked to show porno mags to little boys.
I entered the Whitey Bulger trial expecting to observe a criminal mastermind with a wry flair for drama. Then witness after witness took the stand and described a small, mean man who beat them up and stole their money.
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was an enigmatic heartthrob gracing the cover of Rolling Stone. He seemed less dreamy as we watched the government’s video evidence—a gangly teen awkwardly placing a backpack on a sidewalk, then loping away just before it exploded in the midst of several families.
I suspect that the trial of Ghislaine Maxwell, who stands accused of helping Jeffrey Epstein sexually abuse minors, will follow a similar arc. The media (again, including me) has revved itself up to cover the story of a stylish, jet-setting socialite who broke fantastically bad. But over the coming long courtroom days, chances are we’ll hear less about how she graduated from Oxford, speaks several languages, and can pilot helicopters, and more about how she allegedly took teenage girls on Florida shopping mall excursions as a means of prepping them for molestation.
I watched today’s proceedings (with the many other journalists lacking courthouse credentials) in overflow spaces a few floors away from where the trial was happening, on closed-circuit feeds. Viewed in this manner, on a TV screen, with low-res video captured by a camera placed in a far upper corner of the room, Maxwell was a black-haired, person-shaped blob in a white sweater and a mask. Her notorious style and charm were illegible under these circumstances.
When I came to a pretrial hearing last week, to watch her on these same TVs, I noticed that each time she entered or exited the frame, escorted by a beefy courtroom marshal, she carried with her a little stack of documents that she clutched to her chest behind crossed arms. I am sure these files are important to her, and maybe even to her defense, but I was mostly reminded of my 3-year-old exiting his preschool, escorted by a teacher, holding tight to a piece of construction paper upon which he’d glued pieces of macaroni.
This is what high-profile trials tend to do. They reduce their famous defendants, transforming them into something smaller and more feeble.
Of course, as far as Ghislaine Maxwell’s future is concerned, the audience that matters isn’t the one watching on closed-circuit feeds. It’s the jury in the room. What will they see? What will loom large, or small, for them?
The government presented a somber and straightforward opening statement. “The defendant was trafficking kids for sex. That’s what this trial is about,” said prosecutor Lara Pomerantz. She described Maxwell as Epstein’s “lady of the house.” She accused Maxwell of making young girls “feel seen” as a means of luring them into Epstein’s clutches, and of enabling the multimillionaire’s pedophilia in exchange for being cosseted “in the lifestyle to which she was accustomed.”
Maxwell’s lead defense attorney, Bobbi Sternheim, then took the podium, which, as a COVID precaution, was a plexiglass box set in the middle of the courtroom like some kind of weird vacuum chamber. Wearing her trademark windshield-size eyeglasses, frowning beneath a sleek swoop of gray hair, Sternheim proceeded to throw the kitchen sink at the jury.
She began by asserting that women have been blamed for men’s bad behavior “ever since Eve was accused of tempting Adam with the apple.” She said the government was “pointing the finger” at Maxwell because Jeffrey Epstein, who was found dead in his New York City prison cell in 2019, was no longer alive to be pointed at. Prosecutors objected on multiple occasions as Sternheim termed Maxwell a “scapegoat” and a “stand-in” for Epstein’s crimes.
And then Sternheim got brutal on Maxwell’s accusers, simultaneously suggesting that they couldn’t recall what actually happened because it took place years ago and also that they’d made it all up because they’d been steered to tell false stories in return for cash. “This case is about memory, manipulation, and money,” she said a few times. She noted that accusers had “used drugs.” She said one accuser was an actress skilled at “playing roles.” She speculated that a foreign accuser was just participating in this case because she thought the prosecutors could get her a U.S. visa. Sternheim claimed repeatedly that the accusers had been manipulated into making these allegations by “civil lawyers” who’d coaxed them into seeking “big bucks” from a large fund established for Epstein victims. She ticked off the precise amounts they’d been awarded, ranging up to $5 million.
Sternheim acknowledged that Maxwell lived a “comfortable” lifestyle as Epstein’s chic consort, but took care to remind the jury that luxurious indulgences “are not crimes.” She minimized Epstein’s private jets as simply “a Hamptons jitney in the air” and a slightly elevated form of “commuting.”
She also mentioned—in a moment that no doubt perked the ears of every journalist watching—that there were “famous” people on those flights. (Those famous people’s ears are probably now also perked!) No names were dropped. Perhaps they never will be.
But this stray mention of the luminaries aboard Epstein’s flights became all the more intriguing when, immediately after opening statements, the government’s first witness turned out to be Epstein’s longtime pilot—the man who flew the fabled “Lolita Express.” The trial adjourned for the day before he had time to say anything notable. But if the media (including me) is going to get what we came here for—sordid tales involving, allegedly, just maybe, a couple of U.S. presidents and one of the richest men in the world—this will be a key witness to hear from. Which is why I suspect the throng (including me) will all be back for day two.