How prosecutors proved Ghislaine Maxwell was Epstein’s ‘enabler-in-chief’

British socialite Ghislaine Maxwell was convicted of luring teenage girls into sexual abuse by the late Jeffrey Epstein. A federal jury in New York found her guilty on five of six counts Wednesday, after deliberating for five full days. Moira Penza, a former assistant U.S. attorney who led the prosecution in the 2019 sex trafficking conviction of cultist Keith Raniere, joins Amna Nawaz with more.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    As we reported, there was a partial reckoning in federal court this evening in the sexual abuse case of the late Jeffrey Epstein.

    His former girlfriend and companion Ghislaine Maxwell was convicted on five of six counts, including sex trafficking of teenage girls. Maxwell was accused of luring girls for Epstein and participating in some of the abuse between 1994 and 2004. Epstein died by suicide in 2019, before he could be tried.

    Moira Penza is a former assistant U.S. attorney who led the prosecution that resulted in the 2019 sex trafficking conviction of the NXIVM cult leader Keith Ranier. She's now a partner at the firm Wilkinson Stekloff. She joins us now.

    Moira Penza, welcome to the "NewsHour." Thanks for being here.

    So, Maxwell found guilty on five of those six counts that jurors were considering. What does this tell us about how those jurors saw her role in the abuse that Jeffrey Epstein perpetrated?

  • Moira Penza, Partner, Wilkinson Stekloff:

    Good evening, Amna. Thank you so much for having me.

    I think this is really a complete reckoning. And what we really saw is that jurors understood the government's argument that, really, Maxwell was the enabler in chief for Epstein, that these crimes were facilitated by him, and the jury was persuaded by these victims who came forward and testified.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    What about this one count, people will ask, on which she was acquitted, enticing a minor to travel to engage in illegal sex acts?

    What should we understand about that?

  • Moira Penza:

    So, what you should understand is really the two most serious charges in this case were the sex trafficking counts, so counts five and six. Those carry the most significant penalties.

    Those were the ones where we really heard about the direct involvement of Maxwell in actual sexualized massages with the victim. For all those other counts, those are also very serious, but what we saw is that the jury was just taking its job very seriously.

    And the government had to prove a number of elements for each of those crimes, which incorporate state law. And they are very technical. And we saw that, over the course of many days, the jury was really grappling with that one count.

    But, at the end of the day, it likely won't have a — make a significant difference in terms of how Ghislaine Maxwell is sentenced, ultimately.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, the trial went on for about a month.

    We know it featured the testimony of four women who described their abuse as teenagers in the 1990s and the early 2000s. Tell us a little bit more about what we heard from those women and what role you think their testimony played in the trial and the verdict.

  • Moira Penza:

    Their role was really the most significant in the trial by far. That was really the crux of the government's case here, was the testimony of those four victims, while being corroborated by other witness testimony and other evidence.

    And what we saw is witness after witness, victim after victim explaining how Maxwell recruited them when they were underage and how she participated in the normalizing of this sexual misconduct, of this abuse, and ultimately participated in the commercial sex aspect of this, so actually facilitating the payment for — in exchange for the sexual abuse.

    And so we saw that throughout. And we really saw a focus on what Maxwell's specific role was in the recruitment and then even in the actual sex acts, massaging one of the underage minors, massaging her breasts, actually participating in the sex acts.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    What about Maxwell's attorneys? I mean, for anyone not following along with the trial, what was at the heart of their defense?

  • Moira Penza:

    She had very — Maxwell had a very sophisticated defense team.

    And what we saw is that they took a multi — multifactored approach to defending this case. They were really trying to attack the credibility of the witnesses. They brought an expert on false memories. They tried to show that these victims were biased because Epstein had died and because they were looking at Maxwell really as the scapegoat, now that they could not get justice against Epstein.

    But, ultimately, I think we have seen in case after case this strategy of really attacking the victims backfiring. And so while there were some victims where the defense tried to soften that a bit, tried to make it more about memory lapses, when you have those attacks on sexual abuse victims, especially ones who are minors, I think we have seen that really is not persuasive to a jury.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And, finally, what's ahead for Ghislaine Maxwell? What kind of penalty could she face, being found guilty on five of those six counts?

  • Moira Penza:

    She's facing decades in prison.

    I think that the most, that will be up to Judge Nathan. I think there's a strong likelihood that she would get a sentence in the range of 20 or so years in prison at least. And so, given her age, there really is a possibility she could spend the rest of her life in prison.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That is Moira Penza, former assistant U.S. attorney, now with the firm Wilkinson Stekloff.

    Moira, thank you so much for your time.

  • Moira Penza:

    Thank you for having me.

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