NEW YORK - Prospective jurors got their first glimpse of Ghislaine Maxwell, the British socialite charged with helping Jeffrey Epstein sexually abuse girls and women, when a judge began questioning them individually Tuesday.
Wearing a black suit, Maxwell hugged her lawyers when she entered the courtroom and briefly sketched a courtroom artist who was drawing her.
Judge Alison J. Nathan’s questions in Manhattan federal court were aimed at seeing if potential jurors can stay impartial in the sordid case against Maxwell.
The 12 jurors and six alternates who will hear the case will not be chosen until Nov. 29, when opening statements will begin. The trial is expected to stretch to mid-January.
Maxwell, 59, has pleaded not guilty to charges she groomed underage victims to have unwanted sex with Epstein. She has vehemently denied wrongdoing.
British socialite Ghislaine Maxwell flanked by her attorneys at the start of jury selection in her sex abuse trial. (Sketch by Jane Rosenberg)
Each prospective juror sat alone in a jury box for 10 to 15 minutes while Nathan posed questions from about 10 feet away.
"I'm Judge Nathan. Nice to see you in person," Nathan greeted one potential juror, alluding to two videos that about 600 prospective jurors had watched of the judge describing the case and the jury selection process.
Hundreds were dismissed after filling out a written questionnaire. Nathan expects to question about 230 potential jurors, identified only by number, over several days as Maxwell observes along with her lawyers from a row behind prosecutors. Most of the two dozen spectators spaced apart to guard against the coronavirus were journalists.
Wearing a black mask that matched her robe, Nathan reminded prospective jurors that Maxwell must be considered innocent until a verdict at her trial.
Some prospective jurors said they had heard of Epstein but not Maxwell while others said they had heard of both.
The judge was particularly interested in learning whether any members of the jury pool — drawn from a wide area in and around New York City — could remain impartial after suffering sexual harassment or having bad experiences with law enforcement.
One 68-year-old Manhattan resident said she believed she had experienced sexual harassment "as we know it today." But she added that it probably wasn't thought of in the same way at the time and she didn't believe she'd ever been the victim of serious harassment or abuse.
A 72-year-old Manhattan man seemed amused, if not slightly baffled, when the judge asked him if working around wealthy individuals when he worked as director of training and service for a high-end catering company might affect his ability to be fair and impartial. Maxwell has estimated her assets to be worth $22.5 million.
"They provided my livelihood," he said with a chuckle.
Epstein was arrested in 2019, but the case against him took a shocking turn when the financier and convicted sex offender killed himself while awaiting trial.
After Epstein's death, prosecutors turned their sights on Maxwell, his ex-girlfriend.
The wealthy, Oxford-educated socialite is the daughter of British publishing magnate Robert Maxwell, who died in 1991 after falling off his yacht — named the Lady Ghislaine — near the Canary Islands while facing allegations he’d illegally looted his businesses’ pension funds.
Ghislaine Maxwell holds U.S., British and French citizenships and was repeatedly denied bail in the run-up to her trial.