The graphic testimony presented to jurors in Ghislaine Maxwell’s criminal sex abuse trial last week seemed at times to mesh and then detach from broader theories – criminal, conspiratorial or both – about the nature of Jeffrey Epstein’s world.
Whether prosecutors and defense attorneys are successful in separating criminal conspiracy from the conspiracy theories that run through the entire Epstein-Maxwell narrative may determine how the criminal complaint against the 59-year-old former British socialite is ultimately resolved.
For the prosecution, their case against Maxwell is to separate the criminal charges she faces from broader conspiracy theories about wealth and power that envelop the dark legend of disgraced financier and sex trafficker Epstein. For Maxwell’s defense, the task may be to entangle Maxwell so deeply in Epstein’s shadow that jurors are simply unable to find her guilty.
Both sides are battling preconceptions about wealth, power, privilege and sex – and where those spin off into the sort of conspiracies that have no place in this trial or, arguably, in any kind of reality except, perhaps, that of political extremists.
But, when it comes to Epstein, and the wild web of powerful people he was connected to, there is no easy way to escape the conspiracy theorists.
“Many people have come to me with wild conspiracy theories about this case,” said Lisa Bloom, the victims’ rights attorney, outside the Manhattan courthouse that has become a scene for Q-Anon demonstrations.
“Of course, the Q-Anon people are crazy – they think Democrats eat babies – they’re nuts. But if you’d told me 10 years ago that Jeffrey Epstein had on his plane Donald Trump, Bill Clinton, Kevin Spacey, Chris Tucker and Prince Andrew I would have said you’re crazy. Turns out that’s true.”
Class too, plays a role. In an early indication of how Maxwell’s defense counsel intends to play its hand, her team tried to undercut one of the first witnesses, “Jane”, by challenging her account of where she lived in Palm Beach and whether her gated community was attached to a “country club”.
The implication was clear: jurors were being asked to believe that “Jane” came from better circumstances than she had described and was thus more knowing than indicated.
“I don’t think I’ve ever had a case where a witness was always consistent in what they described,” Wendy J Murphy, a former Massachusetts prosecutor who teaches a course on sexual violence law at New England Law Boston, said. “In fact, I’d be nervous if they were because it comes across as parented and contrived.”
While witness credibility is important, Murphy adds, “this case is about a widespread scheme of criminal conduct – really it’s organized crime. There’s so much corroboration and proof that this enterprise existed you don’t have to put as much stock in the credibility of individual victims.”
But the question of how much of the overall Epstein-Maxwell story is salient to jurors and how much is too wild to believe is likely to be a concern for prosecutors, Murphy says.
“The jurors’ job is to make sense of what they’re hearing,” Murphy said. “But when you’re talking about very unusual behavior at a very high level, most jurors won’t be comfortable thinking that influential people are inclined to do horrible things.
And that, Murphy says, plays to the defense. “Ninety-nine per cent of jurors have no way to identify with the victim so it feels so uncomfortable to believe that it happened. They’d rather find reasonable doubt because it feels better to them about how the world works.”
At the same time, she points out, the central theme of the charges against Maxwell – sex trafficking – is an accepted truth accruing to Epstein.
“Jurors may think Maxwell was involved in something horrendous because she was involved with Epstein who is guilty because he’s dead,” Murphy suggested, and her defense’s argument that she might not have been prosecuted had Epstein lived would then fail to elicit sympathy.
“Nobody cares,” Murphy points out.
Few stories in recent years since 9/11 or the death of Diana, Princess of Wales have acquired as much conspiratorial baggage as Jeffrey Epstein, his alleged enablers and figures within their milieu. Most notorious among them, promoted by his own family, is that Epstein was murdered and not, as records suggest, successful in a second suicide attempt in a poorly run detention center.
At the time, even elected officials, including the outgoing New York mayor, Bill de Blasio, said they did not understand how Epstein, facing multiple accusations of sexual abuse and sex trafficking, had managed to die by suicide. “It’s just too convenient,” De Blasio said. “It’s too many pieces happening simultaneously that don’t fit.”
But it’s Maxwell, not Epstein, who is on trial, though Maxwell has consistently claimed that she is being tried as a substitute for the government’s failure to bring Epstein before a jury. “The charges against Ghislaine Maxwell are for things that Jeffrey Epstein did, but she is not Jeffrey Epstein,” Maxwell’s lawyer, Bobbi Sternheim, said in opening statements.
But whether the trial can begin to parse the conspiracy that the government claims against Maxwell from the broader conspiracy theories around Epstein and his circle of bankers, politicians, scientists and social figures is hard to determine.
Stephan Lewandowsky, a professor at the University of Bristol who has written widely on conspiracy theories, notes that the objects of such thinking nearly always attach to wealth and power of the type that Epstein personified and that perhaps Maxwell can hide behind.
“I can’t think of a conspiracy theory that wouldn’t involve somebody famous or well-known, because no one cares about your grandmother or your cousin down the road. A conspiracy theory about someone no one has heard of isn’t going to be very attractive. You need a famous person as a place-marker,” he said.
And these are conspiratorial times.
Outside the court last week, Q-Anon sympathizers again revived ideas around Pizzagate, the baseless 2016 notion that Democrats around the Clintons were abusing children in a pizza parlor owned by a Democratic party fundraiser.
“It’s all reminiscent of an age-old conspiracy theory known as antisemitism,” says Lewandowsky. “Abuse or sacrifice of children is very often part-political conspiracy theory.”
It is in Maxwell’s interest to put Epstein on trial – and he cannot answer for even the most outlandish claims about him and his circle.