Setting the stage for a long-anticipated sex trafficking trial next month, a federal judge on Thursday rejected Ghislaine Maxwell’s request for extraordinary secrecy surrounding jury selection.
“I am not going to permit attorney-conducted voir dire,” U.S. District Judge Alison Nathan said, opting for the usual judge-conducted questioning of jurors.
With trial slated to begin Nov. 29, Maxwell’s lawyers assert that the sex trafficking allegations may require soliciting sensitive information from the jurors. They asked that the proposed jury questionnaire and joint voir dire—the oral questioning of the jurors—be placed under seal.
Denying that request, Judge Nathan said that she would balance the need for juror privacy with the First Amendment right of access.
“We’re also well aware that there has been intense media interest in this case,” she said, noting that the subject matter of the trial will require asking jurors sensitive questions.
Judge Nathan did, however, decide the jurors themselves will be anonymous and identified only by number, a common practice in sensitive federal trials.
To research how to toe that line, Judge Nathan said that she conferred with another federal judge just across the Brooklyn Bridge in the Eastern District of New York: U.S. District Judge Ann Donnelly, who recently presided over the R. Kelly racketeering trial. That case also involved allegations about the serial sexual abuse of minors.
Without mentioning the R. Kelly case explicitly, Nathan said that her Eastern District colleague’s case involved “similar issues.”
Dozens of news organizations and a press freedom group opposed Maxwell’s request for intense secrecy around the case. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and 17 news organizations signed a letter to Judge Nathan urging the judge to reject it. Representatives of the Southern District of New York’s in-house press, including Law&Crime, separately requested transparency over the jury questioning.
Judge Nathan told Maxwell’s defense team that such materials are routinely made public.
“My understanding and research indicates that they are typically docketed,” Nathan said. “I have certainly always docketed them in the many cases that I’ve tried.”
Prosecutors did not oppose sealing of the materials, which are routinely made public during most criminal proceedings in the Southern District of New York. The government did, however, argue that a request by Maxwell’s defense team for “individual sequestered voir dire” and “limited attorney-conducted voir dire” was a bridge too far.
“The Government respectfully submits that the well-established practice in this District should be followed; that is, the Court should ask most questions in open court and ask sensitive questions, such as those that relate to sexual abuse and media exposure, at sidebar,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Alison Moe wrote in a five-page letter on Oct. 18.
Maxwell’s superseding indictment accuses her of sex trafficking and grooming minors as young as 14 years old for Jeffrey Epstein’s predation from 1994 to 2004. Prosecutors also allege that Maxwell participated in the abuse.
“Having developed a rapport with a victim, Maxwell would try to normalize sexual abuse for a minor victim by, among other things, discussing sexual topics, undressing in front of the victim, being present when a minor victim was undressed, and/or being present for sex acts involving the minor victim and Epstein,” the superseding indictment states.
Prosecutors claim the abuse occurred in Epstein’s New York mansion, Palm Beach estate, and Santa Fe ranch, as well as Maxwell’s personal residence in London. (The indictment does not refer to Epstein’s Little St. James in the U.S. Virgin Islands, which reportedly earned the nickname “Pedophile Island.”)
Though the indictment focuses on only four girls labeled as “Minor Victim,” they are believed to represent just a fraction of the total Epstein survivors. The late tycoon’s estate recently paid out almost $125 million to roughly 150 people from a fund designed to compensate victims.
Judge Nathan said that she would docket the proposed jury questionnaire and voir dire materials by the end of the week. Jury selection is slated to begin on Nov. 4. Maxwell’s defense requested the ability to find out whether the jurors selected discussed the case with the families over the Thanksgiving holiday, which will fall before trial starts.
[Image of Maxwell via Laura Cavanaugh/Getty Images; image of Epstein via mugshot]
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