When Ghislaine Maxwell’s defence case started last Thursday, her team tried pulling off a near-impossible task – making the British socialite accused of sex-trafficking seem likeable.
Indeed, the first defence witness in Maxwell's Manhattan federal court sex-trafficking trial, former assistant Cimberly Espinosa, described her ex-boss in glowing terms.
“I highly respected Ghislaine. I looked up to her very much and I actually learned a lot from her,” Espinosa testified, later commenting: “She treated me fair and nice and it was fun.”
Maxwell’s lawyers didn’t have to call Espinosa, of course – they don’t have to do anything, let alone mount this sort of courtroom crisis PR campaign. Prosecutors must prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt and the defence doesn’t have to prove innocence.
Yet now that the legal drama is entering its final stages, even the fairest of jurors likely won't be able to ignore prosecutors' attempted portrayal of Maxwell as a privileged socialite. Prosecutors contend that Maxwell committed crimes to preserve her gilded lifestyle alongside disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein, so this characterisation might colour how jurors now weigh the case.
The defence’s mounting of a campaign on likeability – a common courtroom tactic – is a response to that prosecution attack. If Maxwell were more likeable to jurors, there just might be a slight chance that the baggage associated with wealth doesn’t completely weigh her down.
Hence the importance of statements from Espinosa, which cast Maxwell as a friend of the working woman who helped her staff out. “I attribute my career right now as an executive assistant to what I learned supporting Ghislaine,”Espinosa said.
Maxwell (59) is being tried for six counts related to her alleged involvement in Epstein's sexual abuse of minor teens. Maxwell was apprehended at a New Hampshire property in July 2020. She maintains her innocence.
Epstein, a convicted sex offender whose high-profile and rich associates included former US presidents Donald Trump and Bill Clinton, as well as Prince Andrew, took his own life in a New York City federal jail more than two years ago, while waiting on his own sex-trafficking trial.
Closing statements in Maxwell’s case are scheduled to start on Monday.
Maxwell worked to satisfy Epstein’s many whims, from shipping sand and palm trees to his private island, to stocking all his homes with a preferred bread. By describing Maxwell’s work ethic as tireless, Espinosa cast her more like Epstein’s employee than his high-flying equal.
On Friday, testimony from another former assistant sought to foster Maxwell's likeability. Michelle Healy, who worked at Epstein's New York City office from 1996 to 1999, said he and Maxwell were her bosses.
“She’s fantastic,” Healy said of Maxwell. “She taught me a lot. I respected her. She was tough, but she was great.”
Defence attorney lawyer Laura Menninger asked Healy questions to rebut testimony from the former house manager of Epstein's Palm Beach mansion. That manager, Juan Alessi, had alleged that Maxwell instructed him to never look Epstein in the eyes.
Menninger asked: Did Maxwell ever warn people against looking her in the eye? Did Maxwell ever give her orders on how she could speak with people?
“No,” Healy said.
Healy said that she hadn't worked out of Epstein's other properties and had only been to his New Mexico ranch once due to a family emergency. Her description of this visit also portrayed Maxwell as magnanimous.
“The only time I went to Zorro Ranch . . . my sister got into a very bad car accident and broke her jaw,” Healy said. “And Ghislaine was kind enough to take me there.”
Espinosa and Healy's positive portrayals aren't surprising, considering that lead attorney Bobbi Sternheim addressed Maxwell's wealth in her opening statement.
"You've heard many negative things about Ghislaine Maxwell and the evidence is going to show many exceptional things about Ghislaine Maxwell – well educated, well travelled, a graduate of Oxford," Sternheim told jurors. "She socialised with extraordinary people, she can pilot a helicopter, she speaks numerous languages and she has worked her entire adult life."
“She is being pegged as the rich girl, the socialite,” Sternheim argued. “But privileged background, comfortable lifestyle, status – they may be things that easily check the wrong box, but they are not crimes.” – Guardian