The trial that Jeffrey Epstein’s suicide made impossible would have answered a relatively simple question: Did the wealthy investor habitually abuse teenage girls?
Now a jury is weighing a more complex question involving Ghislaine Maxwell, Epstein’s longtime girlfriend and manager of his home affairs: As the nation confronts the problem of sexual assault, is the justice system prepared to hold to account people who enable abusers?
The Maxwell case, now at its midpoint in a Manhattan federal courtroom, has attracted much of the attention that would have saturated an Epstein trial if he hadn’t killed himself in a New York jail cell in 2019. It centers on whether the wealthy, British-born socialite recruited, groomed, trained and trafficked young girls to be Epstein’s sexual servants.
But it is also a test of the criminal justice system’s ability to determine why people such as Epstein, movie magnate Harvey Weinstein and R&B star R. Kelly are able to get away with abuses for years on end.
“This is the next frontier in getting at the root causes of this kind of abuse,” said Deborah Tuerkheimer, a law professor at Northwestern University, former prosecutor and author of “Credible,” a book on the credibility of sexual abuse victims. “This case really upends the familiar #MeToo scripts. Maxwell does not look like the standard sexual abuser, so this trial is pushing outward the boundaries of what the public – and the criminal justice system – considers an abuser.”