I spotted various subcultures among the people who, each day up until the verdict came down on Wednesday, observed the Ghislaine Maxwell trial from overflow rooms in the federal courthouse in Manhattan. There were, of course, the journalists—notebooks open on laps, pens in hands. There were the courthouse workers who’d duck in to watch on lunch breaks, curious to see what the fuss was about. There was the occasional looky-loo tourist, wandering in wide-eyed but departing quickly when it turned out to be a dull morning, testimony-wise.
And then there were the conspiracists. They clustered in the overflow room on the fifth floor and established a sort of home turf there, with a distinct vibe. While the first-floor observation room, which was mostly full of reporters, was library-quiet, the fifth-floor room full of dedicated conspiracists was loud and boisterous. More like a sports bar. All the regulars talking back to the closed-circuit TVs.
“It’s all connected,” one woman would say, repeatedly, to no one in particular. “It’s the cabal.” She at one point told me that she suspected it was a Maxwell lookalike sitting at the defense table, while the actual Maxwell was off freely gallivanting somewhere. The fifth-floor types spoke frequently of links between Jeffrey Epstein, the CIA, and Mossad, expecting anyone in earshot to understand the significance without further explanation.
Among the conspiracists, there seemed to be a belief that this trial would unlock the secrets of the universe—that it would lay bare a web touching every rich person in the world, every celebrity, every government agency, implicating them all in some sort of horrific global plot. In the end, of course, it did nothing of the sort.
The prosecution’s case was narrowly focused on the harm done to four teenage girls. It was built on the testimony of those four accusers, now women, who alleged that Maxwell aided, and sometimes participated in, Epstein’s efforts to sexually abuse them. When Epstein’s “little black book” came into evidence, it wasn’t because it included contact information for prominent politicians and businesspeople—it was because the book had phone numbers for those underage girls.
After testimony came to a close, I didn’t think the question of Maxwell’s guilt was much of a question at all. The accusers were, to my eyes and ears, extremely credible. Corroborating evidence affirmed their stories. The prosecutors were polished and effective in their presentation, while defense attorneys often stumbled and looked overmatched. When the defense team got a chance to put on its case, it turned out to be shockingly flimsy. The defense’s lead character witness—Maxwell’s onetime executive assistant—barely even managed to say anything nice about Maxwell. There was zero doubt, in my mind, that Maxwell committed the crimes she was charged with. But this was a jury trial, and with a jury, you just never, ever know.
Day after day, the deliberations went on without a verdict. The jurors requested transcripts of testimony from about a third of the witnesses—just reams of words—which made it seem like maybe they were attempting to rerun the entire trial in their chambers. As time dragged on, and they kept asking for more transcripts, I wondered if they were simply overwhelmed by the case, lost at sea, unable to make heads or tails of what they’d seen and heard in the courtroom. Some trial watchers had earlier complained that the prosecution’s case was too narrow, and that more accusers should have been called to testify, but the jury’s behavior during deliberations suggested that the case was confusing enough as it was. When the jurors requested a whiteboard, highlighters, and colored Post-it notes, I wondered if one among them was attempting to patiently explain to the rest, in a clear and visual way, what actually happened.
After the jurors requested the transcript of testimony from Elizabeth Loftus—famous for her research on “false memories,” and for her cooperation with defense teams working for grotesqueries like Harvey Weinstein—I prepared myself to be outraged. What if Maxwell skated? One more rich person walking away from the wreckage she’d caused, facing no consequences, skipping off to resume her rich life. But then, at last, the verdict came in. Guilty on all but one count. How exactly the jurors parsed the various charges is a mystery, for now. Perhaps they’ll give interviews to explain themselves in the coming days. Perhaps not.
Either way, I think the lingering feeling, when the rush of this verdict fades, will be dissatisfaction. Because why, in the end, were we really watching this trial? The fact is, this sort of crime—enticing young girls into sexual abuse—happens all the time. Generally, the setting isn’t an Upper East Side townhouse or a Palm Beach estate. It’s more like, say, a Super 8 motel in western Pennsylvania. And when the trial happens, if there is one at all, very few of us pay it any attention. The media doesn’t show up. The TV cameras aren’t there. People don’t fill up overflow rooms in the courthouse, watching on closed circuit.
Most of us who followed the trial with interest are really just slightly saner versions of the conspiracists on the fifth floor. We watched because we yearned to know how Epstein got his money. We wanted to learn how far his web spread. Who else was entwined in it. If that’s why you were watching, this trial didn’t begin to scratch at the truth. It didn’t expose “the cabal.” You and I, and the fifth-floor conspiracists, might never get the answers we seek. Unless, perhaps, Ghislaine Maxwell decides to provide them.
Who knows what’s happening now inside her mind. Throughout the trial, we were shown dozens of photos of Maxwell in earlier incarnations. Aboard yachts. At posh soirées. In fancy clothes at fancy country homes. I always found myself wondering what Maxwell was feeling as she sat at the defense table, staring at these photos of her younger self, knowing at the end of each day she’d return not to a mansion but to a jail cell. Did she feel guilt? Regret? Nothing but a desperate desire for self-preservation? Whatever she was thinking, she’ll have a lot more time to think it: Having turned 60 just four days ago, and facing possible decades’ worth of prison time, Maxwell will likely spend most of the rest of her life in a cage.
And that, in the end, was this trial’s purpose. The important thing here is that justice, of a sort, was imposed. Ghislaine Maxwell deserves to be punished. Her conviction will, I hope, deliver some blessed closure to her victims and their families. Even if they’ll never get the chance to look Jeffrey Epstein in the eye and tell him how they feel. And even if we might never know how a monster like Epstein came to be.
To read previous dispatches from the Maxwell trial, click here.