September 21, 2020

Charge That Maxwell ‘Groomed’ Girls for Epstein Is Central to Case

Annie Farmer was 16 years old when she arrived at Jeffrey Epstein’s ranch in New Mexico in 1996 to attend a program for high school students, only to learn that she was the sole participant.

There she met Mr. Epstein’s companion, Ghislaine Maxwell, who seemed friendly and asked about her classmates and her family. Ms. Maxwell and Mr. Epstein took her shopping and lavished her with gifts, like beauty products and new cowboy boots, according to a lawsuit Ms. Farmer filed last year.

The seemingly innocuous behavior was in fact part of a process to “groom” Ms. Farmer for sexual activity, the authorities now say. Ms. Maxwell began pressuring Ms. Farmer to give Mr. Epstein a foot massage, according to the lawsuit, and the encounters escalated — until Ms. Farmer says she eventually woke up one day to find Mr. Epstein entering her room, climbing into her bed and pressing his body against hers.

Now, with Ms. Maxwell facing allegations that she helped Mr. Epstein recruit and ultimately abuse girls as young as 14, the concept of grooming is at the heart of the criminal case against her. References to grooming appear nine times in the 18-page indictment against Ms. Maxwell.

“A predator grooms their victims in order to earn their trust,” said William F. Sweeney Jr., the head of the F.B.I.’s New York office, at a news conference on Wednesday. “He abused that trust completely.”

The indictment charged that Ms. Maxwell gave Ms. Farmer an unsolicited massage while Ms. Farmer was topless, and also involved another unidentified victim in “group sexualized massages of Epstein.”

“She is a sexual predator who groomed and abused me and countless other children and young women,” Ms. Farmer said at Ms. Maxwell’s bail hearing, where a judge ruled that Ms. Maxwell be held in jail while awaiting trial.

Prosecutors also accused Ms. Maxwell of encouraging a third girl to provide massages to Mr. Epstein in London from 1994 to 1995. Ms. Maxwell knew the massages would turn sexual, the indictment charged.

A major hurdle for prosecutors is the fact that the sexual abuse allegations against Ms. Maxwell are from more than two decades ago.

Federal laws allow prosecutors to charge sex abuse of minors at any point in the victim’s lifetime. Still, the timeline creates an opening for Ms. Maxwell’s lawyers to challenge the memories of the women who testify at trial.

Prosecutors have said they will use diary entries, flight records and business records to corroborate their testimony.

Legal experts said that evidence of grooming is sometimes used by prosecutors to rebut a defendant who argues that the sexual activity was voluntary.

In Ms. Maxwell’s case, it might also be used to attempt to show she intended to commit a crime — that is, that she knew the minors would be sexually abused.

She is charged in one count, for instance, under a statute that makes it a crime to “entice” a minor to travel across state lines to engage in illegal sexual activity.

“The grooming is very important to prove intent, to prove the specific intent that she had them travel for the purpose of sex,” said Taryn Merkl, a former federal prosecutor in Brooklyn who supervised human-trafficking cases.

Before his suicide, Mr. Epstein’s lawyers signaled they might argue at his trial that Mr. Epstein had merely engaged in prostitution.

“There was no coercion,” one of the lawyers, Reid Weingarten, said in a hearing last year. “There were no threats. There was no violence.”

The judge pointed out women under 18 could not legally consent to sex under federal law and asked if what Mr. Epstein had done was statutory rape. Mr. Weingarten responded that it was not rape because “there is no penetration.”

The back-and-forth in the Epstein case might serve as a preview of how Ms. Maxwell’s lawyers may try to undermine the government’s accusations against her.

In any case, Ms. Maxwell’s lawyers are likely to shift blame to Mr. Epstein if her case goes to trial, legal experts said.

“She will, in many ways I’m sure, try to put all of their truly egregious conduct on Epstein, and he won’t be there to offer any sort of a counter-explanation,” said Berit Berger, a former federal prosecutor who runs a center on public integrity at Columbia Law School.

But such an approach could work to the government’s advantage, Ms. Berger noted.

“What’s hanging over the jury,” she said, “is one person already escaped justice in this case, and I think there will be a real feeling and a real need for Maxwell not to.”

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