01 November 2021

Accusers at Ghislaine Maxwell trial to use pseudonyms

01 November 2021

Accusers in the upcoming trial of British socialite Ghislaine Maxwell, charged with helping Jeffrey Epstein abuse teenage girls, can testify using pseudonyms to protect their privacy, a judge has ruled.

The ruling by US District Judge Alison J Nathan came after Maxwell was brought into a Manhattan courtroom in handcuffs for a final pretrial hearing.

Judge Nathan made a series of evidentiary rulings to define how the highly anticipated trial, starting later this month, will unfold.

At the end of a nearly four-hour proceeding, a prosecutor said no plea talks had occurred. Defence lawyer Bobbi Sternheim said there was no reason for them because her client “has committed no crime”.

Maxwell echoed her lawyer’s words, saying aloud: “I have not committed a crime.”

Court sketch of Ghislaine Maxwell facing her attorney Bobbi Sternheim (Elizabeth Williams/AP) (AP)

Saying she will renew a bail application that has been rejected multiple times, Ms Sternheim complained that her client was being treated so harshly that Maxwell, shackled at the ankles and waist with her hands handcuffed in front of her, had to get on her hands and knees to climb into the van that brought her to the courthouse.

Then, she was dropped off around 5:30am, more than five hours before the start of the hearing and put alone in a cold holding cell, the lawyer said.

When Maxwell fell asleep, she was “poked to be woken up”, Ms Sternheim told the judge.

Ms Sternheim has repeatedly complained that Maxwell is awakened by guards at a federal lockup in Brooklyn who shine a light into her cell every 15 minutes to check on her.

Judge Nathan said she was allowing pseudonyms for several witnesses who are expected to provide “explicit” and “highly sensitive” testimony at the trial.

Steps to withhold witnesses’ identities in open court are needed “to protect alleged victims from potential harassment from the media and others”, the judge said.

She noted similar precautions were taken for the accusers at the trail of Keith Raniere, a self-help guru convicted in 2019 of sexually exploiting followers at his NXIVM compound in upstate New York. And she said the anonymity will encourage other victims to come forward.

Judge Nathan also rejected a defence bid to bar the government from referring to the accusers as “victims” or “minor victims”, calling it “unnecessary and impractical”.

Courtroom sketch of Judge Alison Nathan (Elizabeth Williams/AP) (AP)

And she also set limits on defence efforts to portray the Maxwell investigation as hasty and politically motivated, saying exploring such accusations would only confuse the jury.

The trial should “focus on the evidence or lack of evidence and the credibility or lack of credibility of the witnesses”, she said.

Defence lawyers seemed on the verge of a major gain when the judge seemed to be considering ruling out the testimony of one of four women expected to testify about sex abuse on the grounds that she was not underage by law in the jurisdictions where she maintained she was sexually abused by Epstein at age 17. The judge asked lawyers to submit arguments on the issue.

Prospective jurors will begin filling out questionnaires later this week and oral questioning of them will begin in mid-November. Opening statements are scheduled for November 29

Maxwell, 59, has been jailed since her arrest in July 2020, when she pleaded not guilty to charges that she recruited teenage girls for Epstein to sexually abuse and sometimes joined in the abuse.

Epstein died at a Manhattan lock-up in August 2019 while awaiting trial on sex trafficking charges. The death was ruled a suicide.

Prosecutors filed arguments last week claiming the defence sought to create a “side show” with extraneous subjects.

The judge largely agreed, ruling that defence lawyers will not be allowed to question witnesses about why law enforcement pursued the case it did, how it chose what subpoenas to issue and why it decided to charge Maxwell and not others.

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