In an effort to save the skin of convicted sex trafficker Ghislaine Maxwell, defense lawyers say a narcissistic father made Maxwell more vulnerable to being manipulated by Jeffrey Epstein. Beyond Maxwell’s tough upbringing, they cite death threats against her by fellow inmates and the harsh conditions she’s faced in jail as reasons New York Circuit Judge Alison Nathan should show her leniency when determining her prison term.
On Dec. 29, after a monthlong trial that included the testimony of four of Epstein’s abuse victims, Maxwell was found guilty of sex-trafficking minors, among other charges. The sex-trafficking count, the most serious she faced, carries a maximum prison sentence of 40 years. Earlier this month, the court’s probation department recommended just 20 years in prison, citing Maxwell’s age — 61 — her history of philanthropy and charity work, and the fact that she was not solely responsible for the harm caused to victims. The NEW? letter, signed by Maxwell’s lawyers Bobbi Sternheim, Christian Everdell, and Jeffrey Pagluica, is a final plea for mercy ahead of her sentencing, set for June 28.
Lisa Bloom, an attorney who has represented several of Epstein’s accusers in the past, believes the judge won’t be swayed by the boilerplate entreaty. “They’re doing their job,” she says. “I think it’s a good try. But she’s going to get a long sentence and she’s probably going to spend the rest of her life in prison.”
Missing from the letter is any mention of the girls and young women who a jury decided Maxwell had helped procure and groom for abuse by disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein, whose 2019 death was ruled a suicide in 2019 in jail awaiting trial. “It’s sad to me that there’s no remorse, there’s no concern for the victims,” Bloom says. “I guess they’re taking the position that she’s innocent and they want to preserve their rights on appeal, but I also think she doesn’t have any remorse, and she doesn’t have any compassion for the victims. It’s all about her.”
Maxwell’s team says she endured “unusually harsh” jail conditions while being held without bail for more than a year before her trial. While in solitary confinement in a nine-by-seven-foot cell, she was deprived of sleep by guards who checked on her every 15 minutes by shining a flashlight in her eyes. She was fed rancid food that often did not adhere to her vegetarian — or “non-flesh” — diet; she did not always have access to soap, a toothbrush, or toothpaste; she complained of painful, humiliating body cavity searches; and while nominally allowed to exercise, she was given ill-fitting shoes that prevented her from actually running around.
After she was out of solitary confinement, Maxwell’s lawyers say she was targeted with a death threat, when a fellow inmate in her building told three other prisoners she’d been offered money to kill Maxwell and intended to strangle her while she slept. Death threat notwithstanding, Bloom points out that inhumane suffering behind bars isn’t unique to Maxwell. “She had the same terrible experience in prison that everybody else has,” Bloom says. “Some of the conditions were probably terrible and unacceptable. I’m a believer in prison reform. We should improve the conditions in prisons. We should treat people as human beings. But I don’t think that would have any real effect on her sentencing.”
If the jail conditions aren’t enough to sway the judge, Maxwell’s team also says she suffered from a privileged but unhappy upbringing. They claim she didn’t get much attention after her older brother slipped into a coma shortly after she was born, dying seven years later. She was anorexic at age three, the lawyers say, and her father Robert Maxwell’s cruel and demanding behavior set her up to be manipulated by Epstein. They accuse the late British media mogul of corporal punishment: After a 13-year-old Maxwell tacked a poster of a pony to her freshly painted bedroom wall, the letter says he took the hammer she’d used to hang it and “banged on” her hand, leaving it “severely bruised and painful for weeks to come.” The lawyers also write of a family reconciliation around Maxwell’s 20th birthday that went downhill resulting in a “miserable Christmas” and the announcement that Maxwell’s parents were divorcing.
In the trial’s opening statements last November, Maxwell’s lawyer Sternheim said her client was being treated as a scapegoat and a stand-in for the late Epstein. “Ever since Eve was accused of tempting Adam with the apple, women have been blamed for men’s bad behavior,” she told the jury. She and Maxwell’s other counsel hit that same note in their plea for leniency, too. “The Court cannot heal the wounds caused by Epstein by heaping on Ms. Maxwell’s shoulders the pain of every one of his victims,” they wrote. Bloom says the worth of that argument has disappeared since the guilty verdicts came down. “That argument had its day in court and was soundly rejected,” she says. “She was there for the crimes that she committed herself and that she has now been convicted of. As lawyers, sometimes we come up with these narratives and then we just keep repeating them and repeating them. But you have to appreciate when you’ve lost an argument and come up with something else.”