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In sex trafficking trial jury pool, Ghislaine Maxwell sees few friendly faces

The defense faces “an almost impossible” task as it searches for desirable jurors to serve in the long-awaited sex trafficking trial of Jeffrey Epstein’s alleged recruiter, legal experts told Courthouse News Service ahead of Monday opening arguments.

MANHATTAN (CN) — A monthlong effort to impanel a jury for the trial of Ghislaine Maxwell concluded Monday morning as the 59-year-old former girlfriend of Jeffrey Epstein finally heads to trial on six felony counts tied to a decade in the late sex offender's long enterprise of trafficking minor girls for sex.

Opening arguments in Maxwell's trial begin this afternoon, but whether the process so far worked to identify a jury of peers for the erstwhile British socialite is a thornier question.

“It strikes me that if you’re Ghislaine Maxwell’s defense attorney, the task of picking a jury is almost an impossible one for you,” Jerald Podair, a lawyer and history professor at Lawrence University, speaking over the phone for an interview. 

“If you’re her defense attorney, there isn’t really any ideal juror for you in terms of background, and there are all these landmines in terms of who to pick,” said Podair, a New York City native who now resides in Appleton, Wisconsin. “You don’t want someone who’s poor, or even lower middle class or poor, because of Maxwell’s obvious wealthy status. You don’t want a person of color because she’s a rich privileged white woman accused of doing something truly heinous. ... You don’t want parents of small children, especially daughters — in fact you may not want any parents of children at all because obviously that’s the worst thing that could happen to a parent of a child."

Down from the more than 600 New Yorkers who filled out juror questionnaires, a selection of 231 prospective jurors underwent a process of in-person, direct questioning earlier this month that narrowed the field to 58. They got the week off for Thanksgiving and returned Monday morning to the Manhattan federal courthouse, where by 10 a.m. prosecutors and lawyers for the defense had whittled the pool down to its final formation of 12 jurors and six alternates. Split evenly between men and women, the jury is predominantly Black and Latino.

Maxwell has pleaded not guilty and vehemently denies wrongdoing. Detained at a federal jail in Brooklyn since her July 2020 arrest, the erstwhile British socialite has called the claims against her “absolute rubbish.”

“The defense is in a really, really difficult place,” Podair continued. “Here, there’s no profile. Someone who’s not rich —someone who’s rich might be good, someone who is of higher income, someone who is not a person of color, someone who is not poor. Someone who is not the mother or the father of a daughter under the age of 20 — those are the people that you don’t want — but also not someone who’s young, who might be able to relate to someone who is 17 or 18 and in that situation.“

Sarah Ransome, an alleged victim of Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell, arrives to the courthouse for the start of Maxwell's trial in New York, Monday, Nov. 29, 2021. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Podair said Maxwell’s defense would not necessarily want younger jurors because they may be especially more “culturally attuned to issues of sexual harassment and abuse,” but older jurors may not be particularly favorable for Maxwell’s defense either.

“They may have a traditional outlook, maybe even a more Victorian outlook, so they would view this crime as especially heinous. … And that pretty much rules out everybody.” 

Podair noted that one juror from the voir dire questioning two weeks ago stood out as more ideal for the defense: Juror 14, a 72-year-old longtime Manhattanite and retired caterer who assured the judge that decades working for the city’s top-shelf cultural institutions would not make him partial toward or against the luxury class.

“I was a director of training and service for a large catering company back in the '80s and '90s. So of course I dealt with all those rich people — United Nations, Met Opera, Met Museum, Kennedy Center. Then I became a personal assistant, because once I learned to do parties and all that I did that,” the prospective juror had said.

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When pressed by the judge if any of his experience catering to the rich Manhattan socialites caused him to harbor any bias for or against affluent people, he told the judge: “No. They provided my livelihood.” 

Aside from the retired caterer, who was ultimately not picked for the panel, Podair told Courthouse News, “the age factors, the racial factors, the socioeconomic factors, the cultural factors, are going to make it really, really hard for the defense to come up with a jury that they are comfortable with.”

Neama Rahmani, the president of the law firm West Coast Trial Lawyers and a former federal prosecutor, suggested in an interview that Maxwell’s defense may actually prefer female jurors.

“It’s ironic, but whenever you’re dealing with sexual abuse with female victims, women jurors, particularly older women jurors, tend to be harder on young women,” Rahmani said. “Women that are conservative often think to themselves, ‘I would never put myself in this position.’ Even though it may be a little counterintuitive, I can see the defense wanting older, more conservative female jurors on this panel. 

"That’s offensive to me, but that argument does resonate with some jurors: the short skirt [as] invitation to be sexually assaulted,” he added.

As for factors that should be a red flag for the prosecution. Rahmani pointed to the possibility of prospective juror interest in the Qanon conspiracy theory that sees former President Donald Trump as a warrior battling a shadowy Deep State of Satan-worshipping, liberal pedophiles.

“Those fringe Qanon types, the Oathkeepers, those types, they’re the last you want on jury, any jury, particularly a jury like this,” he said. “Those folks are so extreme that they’re never going to be on any jury panel. If you’re the prosecution, you are going to kind of weed out and get rid those types. The people that really distrust the government, that’s the last type of juror you ever want any type of panel if you’re prosecutor. You want middle-of-the-road mainstream folks that trust government, that trust law enforcement.

“It’s otherwise such a strong case, there’s so much evidence against Epstein that you don’t want take any risks and rock the boat with one or two kind of fringe, crazy jurors that may be inclined to hang the panel," he said. “There’s no way you’re going to get a not guilty.” 

Rahmani said that younger jurors who may be more sympathetic to the #MeToo cause would be ideal picks for the government in this trial. “That’s the opposite of that older, conservative juror,” he said. “You want those younger, more woke, sensitive to kind of discrepancies in power and older men taking advantage of younger women. That’s the type of jury you want for the prosecution.”

During jury selection two years ago at the high-profile New York state trial of disgraced Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, which served as a watershed moment for #MeToo movement, prosecutors accused Weinstein’s lawyers of systematically trying to keep young women off the panel. Ultimately, though, the final gender makeup of the jury turned out to be closely balanced.

The Manhattan jury in Weinstein’s criminal trial consisted of seven men — six of them white and one Black — as well as five women, two Black, two white and one Latina. They deliberated for five days before delivering a split verdict that convicted Weinstein of committing a criminal sexual act and third-degree rape, but acquitted him on the more serious offense of rape in the first degree and two counts of predatory sexual assault. 

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Three weeks later, Judge James Burke sentenced Weinstein to 23 years in prison.

Damon Cheronis, a Chicago-based private criminal defense attorney who was co-counsel for Weinstein at the trial, told Courthouse News last week that they believed female jurors would be favorable to their case.

“The state objected and made what’s known as a Batson challenge, claiming that we were improperly striking specifically younger female jurors,” he said. “That was not our intention at that at all to hone in on a specific gender or age, actually the opposite is true. When we were picking the jurors in our case, things would come up during the case of questioning that may have led us to make a strike, but we absolutely did not go into that trial with the intention of striking young women from the jury.

“In fact, we thought young female jurors, at least female jurors would be good jurors for us. It just happened that during the course of jury selection, we used certain strikes on female jurors — and to be fair, the state was striking as many male jurors as they could,” Cheronis explained. “The state was kind of doing what they were accusing us of doing … and the judge found that we were not improperly trying to strike female jurors.”

For its part, Weinstein’s defense raised an outcry and demanded a mistrial because one of the jurors was the author of an upcoming novel involving young women dealing with predatory older men. The request was denied, but Weinstein’s lawyers continued to claim outside court that the juror had withheld the information on her questionnaire

This photo of Jeffrey Epstein embracing Ghislaine Maxwell was included in Maxwell's federal indictment filed Thursday, July 2, 2020, in New York. (SDNY via Courthouse News)

Cheronis said he expects that the federal court handling Maxwell’s trial will do a better job squelching the media circus surrounding the trial.

“Federal court is a different animal than state. State court is more like the Wild West than federal court is,” Cheronis told Courthouse News. “These judges are going to bend over backwards to do what they can to ensure that Ms. Maxwell gets a fair trial because they don’t want the circus. No judge wants the circus because it takes away from their job and makes their job harder.

“If they’re being honest, it makes it more difficult for the defendant to get a fair trial. In our case, we think that was a big issue,” he added.

Weinstein’s defense has appealed his New York criminal conviction.

Criminal defense attorney Barry Kamins with Aidala Bertuna & Kamins filed a 166-page brief in April 2021 with the Appellate Division's First Department. Himself a retired state Supreme Court justice, Kamins revived the defense's claim that one of the jurors in Weinstein's criminal trial could not have been impartial because she had penned an autobiographical novel that involved sexual exploitation by predatory older men.

“Juror No. 11’s fixation with matters of consent and predatory older men and her lack of candor about it, raises troubling questions about whether she prejudged Mr. Weinstein’s guilt and whether she had a personal agenda to see him convicted,” the brief states.  “Allowing Juror No. 11 to participate in the deliberations did not merely obstruct the judicial process, it single-handedly obliterated it.”

Weinstein's appeal in New York remains pending.

Maxwell was arrested by FBI agents on July 2, 2020, at her sprawling 156-acre home in Bradford, New Hampshire. The move came nearly a year to the day that sex-trafficking charges landed her longtime associate and former romantic partner Jeffrey Epstein in the Manhattan jail cell where the 66-year-old financier would be found dead one month later.

Charges contained in Maxwell's superseding indictment focus on the period from 1994 to 2004, when, prosecutors say, Epstein was paying Maxwell to manage his properties.

Her trial is expected to last six weeks and run through mid-January 2022.

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