A federal judge ruled on Friday that prosecutors can call an expert witness to provide testimony at the heart of their sex trafficking case against Ghislaine Maxwell: a clinical psychologist is expected to testify about the process of “grooming” minors for sexual abuse.
Lisa Rocchio, a clinical instructor at the Alpert Medical School of Brown University, has more than two decades of experience treating hundreds of victims of trauma, including numerous victims of sexual abuse. She detailed her extensive resume in court on Wednesday, in a hearing where Maxwell’s legal team attempted to undermine her expertise.
Though Maxwell’s defense succeeded in limiting the breadth of Rocchio’s expected testimony, U.S. District Judge Alison Nathan largely ruled for the prosecution in giving the green light to expert’s testimony on Friday.
“Methods That Perpetrators of Sexual Abuse Often Use to Build Trust”
“Dr. Rocchio has extensive experience treating minors who have been sexually abused, and those decades of relevant experience, combined with her formal training, are an adequate basis for her to testify on methods that perpetrators of sexual abuse often use to build trust with their victims, whether that be grooming or other forms of manipulation and coercion,” Judge Nathan noted in an 11-page opinion and order.
When federal prosecutors first announced charges against Maxwell, the psychological concept of grooming—the use of coercion or manipulation short of physical force—appeared central to their allegations. The U.S. Attorney’s office invoked the concept in their press release three times and used the same jargon in the indictment’s “Overview,” summarizing the claims against Maxwell.
Having held leadership positions in the American Psychological Association and Rhode Island Psychological Association, Rocchio told the court on Wednesday that the grooming process could include gift-giving or “letting the child know how special they are.”
“They’re basically akin to what two adults might do in the courtship process,” Rocchio added.
Earlier this year, prosecutors alluded to evidence that Jeffrey Epstein and Maxwell gave gifts to at least one of the four “Minor Victims” listed in Maxwell’s superseding indictment. That accuser, Annie Farmer, said in a lawsuit that Epstein and Maxwell took her shopping and “lavished her with gifts,” including beauty products and a pair of brand new cowboy boots, before sexually abusing her.
In May, Maxwell’s legal team asked to examine the cowboy boots, and Judge Nathan signaled they would be introduced into evidence at trial.
More broadly, Epstein’s scheme allegedly operated through what a Palm Beach detective described as a “sexual Pyramid scheme,” built upon recruiting minor girls to give him massages for money. Those massage sessions would escalate to sexual assault, and the victims would get paid to supply other minor girls for Epstein, prosecutors say.
“A Researcher Can Only Rarely Verify Reports with Absolute Certainty”
Maxwell’s defense team planned to call another witness, forensic psychiatrist Park Dietz, to attack Rocchio’s conclusions as unverified, but Judge Nathan rejected that argument.
“Given the realities of studying sensitive criminal acts like sexual abuse, a researcher can only rarely verify reports with absolute certainty,” Nathan wrote. “Yet that does not mean a clinical or forensic psychologist accepts all statements at face value. Rather, as the Government notes, part of Dr. Rocchio’s profession is to examine and diagnose her patients consistent with her significant training and specialized knowledge. Further, on the forensic side of her practice, Dr. Rocchio regularly investigates and verifies sexual abuse. She reports “remarkable consistency” between the reports of her clinical patients and her forensic findings.”
In a small win for Maxwell, Judge Nathan agreed to prevent Rocchio from opining to the jury of her theory of “grooming-by-proxy,” the view that the process can be done by or in the presence of a third-party to facilitate abuse.
“Terminology aside, the Court agrees with this narrower objection to Dr. Rocchio’s testimony,” Judge Nathan ruled. “As discussed at the hearing, this phenomenon is not identified in the relevant literature regarding child sexual abuse and has not been subjected to peer review. Instead, the Court understands this opinion to be an extrapolation of the broader principle of how grooming functions through the development of trust. That extrapolation may be logical and follow common sense, but it is for the jury to make on the facts of this case.”
Such an extrapolation may be significant in the Maxwell’s case, as she is accused of facilitating Epstein’s abuse—and participating in the abuse herself.
Though the judge found “grooming-by-proxy” too unsupported to provide an expert opinion, Rocchio noted that the broader concept of grooming is hardly novel.
“Grooming itself has been in the scientific literature at least since the ’80s,” Rocchio testified on Wednesday, adding that most childhood sexual abuse happens through this process rather than through force.
Maxwell faces a possible 80-year sentence if convicted. On Monday, Judge Nathan will hear whether to admit Maxwell’s expert on “false memory,” who previously testified for Harvey Weinstein, Robert Durst, Bill Cosby and others. The judge will start questioning potential jury candidates on Tuesday for four days, and trial is scheduled to begin on Nov. 29.
Read the ruling, below:
[image via JOHANNES EISELE/AFP via Getty Images]
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