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Sex-trafficking trial spun off from Epstein probe kicks off with jury selection

A federal judge scouted for biases either for or against wealthy jet-setters as the trial of British socialite Ghislaine Maxwell draws nigh.

MANHATTAN (CN) — From a 231-person pool down to a panel of 12 jurors and six alternates, a weeklong process prefacing the trial of Jeffrey Epstein's alleged sex-ring recruiter commenced Tuesday morning.

Ghislaine Maxwell, 59, was arrested in July 2020, 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.

She faces eight criminal counts, including allegations that she groomed teenage victims as young as 14 years old for sexual abuse by Epstein for a decade between 1994 and 2004.

Maxwell's upcoming trial in the Southern District of New York, expected to take six weeks and kick off in two with jury selection, is set to begin opening arguments at the end of month on Monday, Nov. 29.

Out of a pool of over 600 New Yorkers who filled out juror questionnaires earlier this month, 231 prospective jurors returned to the Manhattan federal courthouse Tuesday for in-person, direct questioning that is expected to run through Friday.

Maxwell, who will turn 60 on Christmas day during the trial, mostly looked straight ahead during the start of voir dire, sitting with her attorneys about 10 feet to the right from the jury box where U.S. District Judge Alison Nathan summoned prospective jurors individually for questioning.

Judge Nathan, an Obama-nominated judge, repeatedly admonished prospective jurors that, until they are formally dismissed, they are not to discuss the case with anyone or research it, on the internet or anywhere else — a point Nathan made with an intermittent emphasis on social media and podcasts.

Multiple jurors attested on Tuesday to not following any news at all, either in print, broadcast or online.

One perspective juror said he deleted all of his social media last week in the wake of a recent breakup so that he wouldn’t see his ex.

Another juror, a 24-year-old woman from Westchester County, likened her deliberate abstinence from social media to how former alcoholics speak of their vice in A.A., telling Judge Nathan she’s been off Facebook for five years, off Twitter for almost three years, and off Instagram for the last year and a half.

Judge Nathan instructed earlier this month that once the trial concludes — a date that has been put at about Jan. 15 — the final jury will be asked to render a verdict based only on evidence they learn about in the courtroom.

Repeatedly Tuesday, she told each prospective juror that the defendant, Maxwell, is “presumed innocent of all charges unless and until the government proves her guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.” Judge Nathan pressed the would-be jurors on whether they formed any opinions about Epstein, or Maxwell’s alleged association with him, that would make it hard to them fair or impartial at trial.

The Metropolitan Correctional Center in Lower Manhattan on May 1, 2021, with New York City Hall illuminated in the background. Jeffrey Epstein was found hanged in his prison cell there on Aug. 10, 2020. (Barbara Leonard photo/Courthouse News)

Multiple prospective jurors said that they heard of Epstein and his jailhouse death but not Maxwell.

One prospective juror explained to Judge Nathan that she was unaware of Epstein's notoriety. "I know he’s famous. I think he’s an actor," she said. "From all the questions, I know there’s something to do with sexual assault, but I don’t really know much."

Another prospective juror, a Caribbean home health aide, gave a fast, Patois-tinged summary of what she'd heard about Epstein on local news television: "He was charged with something and get locked up and he hanged himself, that’s all I see."

While the jurors will not be sequestered, their privacy will be ensured because they will be referenced by numbers and will be transported to and from the trial each day.

The Southern District of New York summons jurors from the the five boroughs of New York City as well as Bronx, Westchester, Rockland, Putnam, Orange, Dutchess and Sullivan counties.

Some of Epstein’s accusers, identified in court by pseudonyms or first names, will get a chance to play a key role as government witnesses in Maxwell’s trial.

Epstein, who died at 66, was arrested on multiple sex trafficking charges in New York in 2019. His lawyers contended the charges violated a 2008 nonprosecution deal with federal prosecutors in Miami that secretly ended a federal sex abuse probe involving at least 40 teenage girls. After pleading guilty to state charges in Florida instead, he spent 13 months in jail and paid settlements to victims.

The New York case took a shocking turn when Epstein killed himself in federal custody Metropolitan Correctional Center two years ago while awaiting trial on child sex-trafficking charges.

After his death, prosecutors turned their sights on Maxwell.

The wealthy, Oxford-educated British socialite was the daughter of British publishing magnate Robert Maxwell, who died in 1991 after falling off his yacht — named the Lady Ghislaine — near the Canary Islands while facing allegations he’d illegally looted his businesses’ pension funds.

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