NEW YORK — Attorneys for accused sex trafficker Ghislaine Maxwell, echoing prior high-profile sexual abuse cases, launched a legal offensive against prosecution witnesses before presenting their defense.
From opening arguments to cross-examination, lawyers for Maxwell — accused of procuring underage girls for convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein — focused on the witnesses’ past drug and alcohol use or mental illness, while suggesting in some cases they were motivated by money.
“Now suddenly, after Epstein dies and she has a lawyer by her side, she now remembers all this horror that happened to her and places Ghislaine at the center of it,” said defense attorney Bobbi Sternheim in her Manhattan federal court opening statement about the victim identified only as Jane.
“When money was on the line, she tagged Ghislaine,” she continued. “ ... And she received $5 million. Examine critically what she is going to say on the stand.”
Prosecution witnesses identified only as Kate and Carolyn, on cross-examination, were asked about their cocaine use and their drinking — and its possible effect on their testimony.
“Fair to say that using and abusing those substances over a 10-year period has had an impact on your memory, correct?” Sternheim asked Kate.
“It has not had an impact on the memories I have always had,” she responded.
“But nonetheless, your periodic drug use had a negative impact on your life, didn’t it?” the defense attorney continued.
“Yes,” the witness replied.
The prosecution rested its case Friday, with the defense expected to begin its rebuttal this Thursday. Maxwell pleaded not guilty to charges of trafficking minors for sex with Epstein, and faces up to 80 years in prison if convicted.
Dmitriy Shakhnevich, a criminal defense attorney and professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said the defense tactics against prosecution witnesses were hardly unexpected.
“Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby — it’s a common defense in sexual assault,” said Shakhnevich. “The judge has to balance relevance with salaciousness. ... They are going to see if it works. Nobody knows yet.”
In the Cosby case, some of the accusers faced brutal cross-examination where defense attorneys suggested they sought money or fame rather than justice with their testimony. Questions were also raised about past drug and alcohol use.
The Weinstein prosecution followed much the same path in discrediting the witnesses who told their tales of sexual abuse at the disgraced Hollywood mogul’s hands.
“You’re a professional actress, correct?” defense lawyer Donna Rotunno asked onetime “Sopranos” star Annabella Sciorra. “You take on a role, correct? ... And you convince the audience?”
Sternheim ran the same argument past the Maxwell jurors about actress and accuser Jane: “She is a pro at playing roles. As her scripts and characters change, so has her story that you will hear in this courtroom.”
Defense attorney Jeffrey Pagliuca asked witness Carolyn about smoking pot and drinking in the year before she met Epstein at age 13. And the lawyer forced her to reveal a painful part of her past, something with no relation to Epstein and Maxwell’s alleged abuse.
“Isn’t it true that you’re worried about your kids being taken away because you lost custody of the children?” he asked.
“I didn’t lose my kids,” said Carolyn, crying on the witness stand before Judge Ali Nathan intervened.
“Let’s go, counsel,” the judge said. “Because it’s close to the end of the day.”
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