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Maxwell prosecutors won their case but shed little new light on Epstein

The window, it turned out, was narrow, and
those thirsting for a courtroom blockbuster were almost surely left
unsatisfied, as federal prosecutors kept a sharp focus on the accounts of four
accusers and the evidence supporting their allegations.

High-profile friends of Epstein’s like former
Presidents Donald Trump and Bill Clinton came up only in passing. Just a few
financial transactions and a fraction of the thousands of FBI photographs taken
of Epstein’s lavish properties were offered into evidence. Even talk of
Epstein’s private planes, the subject of much fascination, came off as staid.

The trial ended Wednesday with Maxwell
convicted on five of the six counts she faced over her role in procuring
teenage girls for Epstein, who was accused of sexually abusing them. The stakes
were high, and the consequences are real: At 60, she could spend the rest of
her life in prison.

To obtain the verdict, prosecutors from the US
attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York pursued what is known
within their office as a “thin to win” strategy.

The approach, which takes its name from a golf
maxim, calls for bare-bones trial proceedings stripped of flourishes that may
tantalise the public but can distract a jury. Such a strategy often runs
counter to public expectations in highly publicised cases like Maxwell’s, but
it keeps juries focused on the facts, former Southern District prosecutors
said.

“The goal is not to put on a show and answer
the press or public’s lingering questions about this or that,” said Martin S.
Bell, a former prosecutor in the office’s public-corruption unit who did not
have a role in the investigations involving Maxwell or Epstein.

“Prosecution abhors a sideshow,” Bell added.
“It abhors a circus.”

To Russell Capone, who oversaw the
investigations into both Maxwell and Epstein before leaving the Southern
District this past summer, the verdict vindicated the less-is-more approach.

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Prosecutors were right, he said, not to try
“to expose every nook and cranny of the sordid Epstein drama, which is not what
this was about.” The decision to “just focus on these victims and put in a
concededly thin case,” he said, “was the right one,” coupled with what he
called an appeal to jurors’ “common sense.”

A lawyer for Maxwell declined to comment
Thursday, as did a Southern District spokesperson.

In one example of the strategy, the four
accusers on whose allegations the charges were based were the only victims to
testify for the government. By contrast, at disgraced film mogul Harvey
Weinstein’s trial on state sex-crime charges, prosecutors called multiple women
to testify, including several who were not explicitly connected to the charges,
to show a pattern of conduct by Weinstein. (A Manhattan jury convicted him on
two of five counts.)

Maxwell’s trial centered primarily on events
from 1994 to 2004, a period during which, prosecutors argued, she and Epstein
directly recruited girls for him to abuse. This gave way in later years, one
prosecutor, Lara Pomerantz, told the jury, to a “pyramid scheme” in which
victims recruited other young girls. Discussion of this era was limited at trial
to one accuser’s testimony.

Another reflection of the narrow focus: the
government’s decision not to call a number of potential witnesses whose
testimony might have been riveting or even explosive but could have complicated
the prosecution.

Those potential witnesses included Virginia
Giuffre, who is among Epstein’s most vocal accusers. But one of the women who
testified against Maxwell said that Giuffre, previously known as Virginia
Roberts, had recruited her to give Epstein massages when she was 14.

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Also missing from the prosecution’s case at
trial was any mention of two co-conspirators who had been identified in
pretrial filings as participating in the sex-trafficking scheme.

Nor did the government call women who worked
for Epstein and Maxwell, including Sarah Kellen, whom defense lawyers mentioned
repeatedly at trial. The same accuser who testified to being recruited by
Roberts said Kellen had paid her to pose for nude photographs and helped
schedule sexualised massages she took part in.

Boldface names like Trump, Clinton, Prince
Andrew and actor Kevin Spacey, all of whom have been associated with Epstein,
went unmentioned except for their having ridden on Epstein’s planes. (Giuffre
has accused Prince Andrew in a lawsuit of raping her when she was 17. He has
denied the accusation.)

The trial did not address the many conspiracy
theories that have sprung up around Epstein, including the mysterious origins
of his indeterminate wealth, or rumors of his ties to foreign intelligence
services. Although his name came up often during the three weeks of testimony,
there was no direct mention of his 2019 death in custody, which New York City’s
medical examiner ruled a suicide.

There was also scant mention of Maxwell’s
background, except a reference to the 1991 death of her father, British media
baron Robert Maxwell.

Moira Penza, a former federal prosecutor in
Brooklyn who led the team that won the 2019 racketeering conviction of Nxivm
sex cult leader Keith Raniere, said the government’s streamlined approach at
Maxwell’s trial allowed “the jury to see that this is not a documentary.”

“It allows there to be this narrow focus,
narrow lens that is very difficult for the defense to attack,” she said.

Prosecutors pared their case down as trial
approached: Shortly before jury selection, they told the judge their case would
take up to a month. They finished with their 24 witnesses in 10 days.

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The government also pressed vigorously to keep
Maxwell’s lawyers from broadening their case by, among other things, questioning
law enforcement witnesses about previous inquiries involving Epstein.

Prosecutors also sought to preclude a
potential argument that Maxwell was one of Epstein’s victims, saying there was
no evidence to suggest it. The issue did not arise at trial.

The narrow prosecution focus was not without
vulnerabilities, some of which were apparent during the trial. The strategy
left the government open to defense claims that it had not lived up to its
promises, could not support the witnesses’ stories and had not proven its case.

In her closing argument, Laura Menninger, a
lawyer for Maxwell, said the government had “really struggled to explain why an
Oxford-educated, proper English woman would suddenly agree to facilitate sex
abuse of minors.”

The absence of Giuffre was also conspicuous,
Menninger said.

“Why didn’t Virginia Roberts come and get on
the stand and tell you that she was a victim?” she asked while addressing the
jury. “Use your common sense.”

Maxwell’s lawyers also noted that there was no
testimony from women and men who had worked closely with Maxwell and Epstein,
some of whom, like Kellen, were invoked repeatedly at trial.

But the judge overseeing the case, Alison J
Nathan, told the jury in her instructions that while there were people named at
trial who did not testify, “each party had an equal opportunity or lack of
opportunity to call any of these witnesses.”

“Their absence,” she added, “should not affect
your judgment in any way.”

©2022 The New York Times Company

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