At 3:55am in downtown Manhattan, on the tenth day of the United States of America v. Ghislaine Maxwell trial, a man lay diagonally on a folding chair, zipped into a hooded sleeping bag. He was a paid line-sitter—physical insurance that his client would get in first. The man’s companion paced back and forth on the flagstones outside the federal courthouse. He was moving to stay warm, but he, too, was on lookout. “This is a job. This means a client for us,” he said.
A few days earlier, I had made the mistake of arriving at 6:30am. Even the Starbucks at the northwest corner of Foley Square is open by then. There was no chance of a seat in Room 318, the courtroom where a combination of social distancing and intense public interest meant that very few members of the press were allowed inside.
The rest of us gave up our phones and laptops in exchange for stamped brass tokens and elbowed our way to the “overflow rooms.” These turned out to be empty courtrooms where we could watch the proceedings on small, low-resolution monitors, straining to make out the muffled audio.
The diminutive screens and low-quality sound meant that the competition, already sore from missing a seat in 318, was tough. My first day, I slid over to the end of my front-row bench so two tabloid reporters could sit closer to the monitor.
“Two to a row, ladies,” said one of the guards. The reporter closest to me looked over her shoulder.
“Hey, buzz off,” she snarled in a New York accent.
On day ten of the trial, I waited with the two placeholders, who, by 5am, had lowered their guard enough to say that the 7-Eleven over on Broadway was open for coffee.
Two women and two men climbed out of a cab. They were not press.
“We were going to go to Napa for my birthday weekend,” one of the women said, “but then I told my husband, ‘You know what I really want? I want to go to the Ghislaine Maxwell trial.’ ”
“I just love digging below the surface. I just love figuring out what really happened,” her friend said. “We have a five-year-old, but my husband always says, ‘It’s not too late. If you want to join the CIA, we can make it work.’ ”
A Broadway actor who is writing a television show got on line. “I was at the El Chapo trial before this,” she told me. Broadcast vans arrived to set up their cameras across Centre Street.
By 6am, Addy Adds, an independent reporter, wandered up and down the line to chat. “I’m one of the most censored people on the internet,” he told me. His website says YouTube has shut down eight of his channels. But over the first two weeks of this trial, he had already gained ten thousand new Twitter followers. “Next year, I’m going to cover the drug cartels in Mexico. Maybe interview an assassin,” he told me.
As sunrise approached, the line was buzzing. It was “insane,” the reporters and court tourists agreed, so “disappointing” how short the prosecution had cut their case. They were expected to rest by end of day, when, in the beginning, their case was anticipated to last four weeks. “What’s being suppressed? What are they hiding?” the line asked. By now night guards from the courthouse were outside to chat about the case on their way home.
Adam Reiss, a producer for NBC and MSNBC, and Vicky Ward, a British journalist who profiled Jeffrey Epstein for Vanity Fair in 2003, sprang out of a car service and stepped up to the head of the line. The placeholders nodded hello.
“Hey Vicky, these people have been here a long time,” said Adds. “What are you doing at the front of the line?”
“I’ve had someone here waiting on my behalf, thank you.”
Soon the thread of discussion resumed. Ward whispered, “Where are all the men?” We all leaned in to hear. “Men are strangely absent from this case. This trial is all about women, and the men, they’re the reason this happened, and they’ve been allowed to just fade away.”
Inside Room 318, reporters sat toward the back with members of the public behind them.
Three sketch artists, already at work, sat ahead with their tubs of pastels, brushes, and jam jars of water arranged on the benches beside them. First at the pretrial hearing, and then again at jury selection, Maxwell had confronted the artists, silently sketching them as they drew her. “She turned around, really all the way, to sketch us,” said Elizabeth Williams, one of the artists.
There was something shocking about Maxwell’s humanness. As with others accused of terrible crimes, by making Maxwell ubiquitous, the media had turned her into metaphor, shorthand for a parent’s worst nightmare: akin to an abandoned tricycle, an empty shopping-cart seat, a piece of candy from a stranger.
She was thin enough to be angular. Masked in black, Maxwell was almost invisible as she leaned against the brown marble wall in her beige sweater. When she sat up, she perched on her elbows, the dark swish of her bob a mesmerizing vestige of her old life—a reminder that Oxford and Belgravia and speaking five languages doesn’t wash off, not even at the Metropolitan Detention Center.
That morning, the prosecution called Annie Farmer to the stand. Ward had known Farmer, the first of Maxwell’s accusers to testify under her legal name, since her work on the Vanity Fair piece. She and her sister Maria had spoken on the record for the first time with Ward. But the magazine cut Farmer’s story. The sisters felt betrayed. Since then, they had spoken out about how tired they were of Ward “profiting” from their story.
With Farmer sworn in and seated, the prosecution dived in.
“Can you please look around this courtroom? Do you see anyone who has given you a massage?”
“Yes, I do.”
The prosecution asked Farmer to confirm the accuracy of Government Exhibit 101. It was sealed to the public but easily visible to the press over Maxwell’s shoulder: A photo from Farmer’s junior year in high school flashed up on Maxwell’s screen. She wore a white T-shirt and a pendant necklace. Her picture was a reminder of how young sixteen really is.
We scribbled in our notebooks as the details of an isolated weekend in the spring of 1996 unfurled. Farmer had been trapped alone with Maxwell and Epstein in a small bungalow on his New Mexico ranch.
As each plot point fell into place, Maxwell’s sister Isabelle sat hunched, motionless, cocooned in wool on the front bench with their brother Kevin. She wore a black beret, which she pulled over her head and tucked down the back of her sweater collar.
“She wears a different beret every day,” one of the reporters said quietly during a pause. “How did she pack them all?”
“Cardi B was a great trial—her outfits were so good,” whispered one of the in-house wire reporters. “There were feathers.”
The defense’s cross-examination broke up the hiatus. Throughout the trial, Maxwell’s team had focused on inconsistencies in the victims’ stories. “This case is about memory, manipulation, and money,” Bobbi Sternheim, one of Maxwell’s attorneys, had told the jury in her opening statement.
Today, the defense was eager to cast doubt on the accuracy of Farmer’s memory, and to emphasize two instances in which Farmer had failed to behave in a way they claimed real victims of sexual assault should. Aged sixteen, Farmer had neglected both to record Maxwell’s New Mexico attack in her journal and to throw out the black cowboy boots Epstein and Maxwell bought for her on the trip.
Farmer has a PhD in educational psychology and works as a therapist with survivors of sexual assault. She held steady. She knew—actually knew—that no matter what the defense team alleged was normal behavior, she had acted in the nonlinear way that victims of sexual assault function.
When it came to the missing journal entry, Farmer said, “I think I just really didn’t want to think about it.”
And the black cowboy boots? Wasn’t it true that, about ten years after she claimed that Maxwell assaulted her, Farmer had taken them out of her mother’s storage unit and started to wear them?
The moment was self-consciously cinematic, but the press were transfixed
“Obviously, it was a dark memory, and I felt so taken advantage of by them both. And I think I was just a little older, and I saw them as a symbol of, you know, this hard thing that happened to me, but that I could—you know, by using the boots, I mean, it was somehow like changing that, reclaiming it in some way.”
A brown paper evidence bag was carried in. The moment was self-consciously cinematic, but the press were transfixed. Defendant’s Exhibit AF9 was admitted.
“Could you remove them from the bag, please?” asked Laura Menninger, an attorney for Maxwell. We all craned our necks.
“Fair to say that the heels are pretty well worn down on the boots?”
“Fair to say that the toes are pretty well scuffed, right?”
“You wore them a lot.”
“I didn’t wear them to work, but I wore them when I went two-stepping, yes.”
“So you went dancing in the boots Mr. Epstein bought for you?”
The lawyers for the defense passed notes back and forth with Maxwell. Reiss leaned over to double-check the accuracy of a quote against Ward’s transcription.
The defense spent the rest of their time picking apart FBI transcripts of old interviews with Farmer, their object to discredit her memory.
Farmer testified on December 10 that she remembered her holiday decorations were up the day she told the FBI about the cowboy boots, but in another deposition she had described the weather outside as “hot.” In 2006 she said she had expected her sister Maria to accompany Epstein and Maxwell to the New Mexico ranch—why couldn’t she remember that detail now? And really, no private chef at the ranch? Was she sure about that?
With the government rested, the jury dismissed until the following Thursday, and the motions for acquittal denied, Menninger petitioned the judge to unseal three of the defense’s exhibits. The defense team argued that the prosecution was taking too long to finish redacting the documents. The judge, Alison J. Nathan, admitted the exhibits were “memorable.” As the trial progressed she had seemed to increasingly favor public access over victim privacy.
Menninger swept an arm toward us, invoking the rights of the reporters at the back of the room. “I’ve been getting requests from the media for those exhibits. I obviously don’t respond to the press, but I think it’s an indication that they are interested in making whatever is publicly available happen sooner rather than later.”
As the Maxwell trial has become an era-defining spectacle for the news media, it’s worth asking: Do Epstein’s and Maxwell’s victims owe the public the details of a sexual assault they survived as children?
Lucia Osborne-Crowley is a lawyer, a reporter for Law360, and a survivor of sexual assault. She’s covering the trial for a forthcoming book and documentary, and has spoken to many of Epstein’s and Maxwell’s victims who have come to watch the trial. Even without testifying, “this has been incredibly hard on them,” she says. “They can’t walk in or out without being chased by the media.”
As for those who take the stand, even in front of the limited press and public presence permitted in Maxwell’s trial, the strain of recounting sexual assault, the fact that the defense is still permitted to allege that “real” victims process sexual trauma in linear ways, and even the foreignness of the language a witness’s own lawyers may use with her can be hard to comprehend until you’re in the room. Osborne-Crowley was present in the hall outside Room 318 when the witness who testified under the pseudonym Jane exited. “She literally collapsed. She was on the floor,” Osborne-Crowley said.
As each witness began to testify, reporters and sketch artists scribbled down every detail. By the end of Annie Farmer’s testimony, her words were already popping up in the public record.
In that day’s official transcript, the word “boots” appeared forty-seven times, and Farmer’s “journal” ninety-nine times. The word “memory” came up seventy times. “Massage” had been uttered seventy-seven times that day. The word “breasts”—fundamental to Farmer’s specific allegations against Maxwell—appeared eighteen times.
The press seemed to have missed the point. News media’s orientation toward the salacious details of Farmer’s assault, rather than the legal developments of the day, was by rote.
“There’s a cascading effect, where if one person writes the day’s story about diamonds in Epstein’s safe, and Prince Andrew, and four-bedroom mansions, then everyone else feels like they have to write that story to get the clicks.”
Later that day, the AP summarized the final day of the prosecution’s case. No mention was made of the cowboy boots, the high school journal, or the issue of memory. But “massage” came up six times, and the sixteen-year-old Farmer’s “breasts” five.
In the New York Times’ recap of day ten, the boots were mentioned once, the journal three times, the word “remember” twice. The coverage again favored graphic details. “Massage” was there five times; “breasts,” six.
The Wall Street Journal: “Boots,” one. “Journal,” two. “Memory,” zero. “Massage,” six. “Breasts,” three.
“There’s a cascading effect,” Osborne-Crowley said, “where if one person writes the day’s story about diamonds in Epstein’s safe, and Prince Andrew, and four-bedroom mansions, then everyone else feels like they have to write that story to get the clicks. This is the media environment that we live in.”
Epstein’s perspective has always dictated news coverage of the story, rather than the perspective of his victims or even the legal considerations. “ ‘He had a sexual relationship with a minor,’ for example,” Pamela Mejia said the first time we spoke, a month after Epstein’s death, in 2019. “All these phrases and frames use some kind of language that conveys consent and soft-pedals what we know to be happening.” Mejia is the head of research and principal investigator for the Berkeley Media Studies Group, where she analyzes news coverage of sexual violence and child abuse.
Headlines like “ ‘Massage’ Was Code for ‘Sex’: New Epstein Abuse Revelations” ran in the New York Times that summer. Only Epstein would claim that he was having “sex,” rather than raping children.
On August 11, 2019, Reuters reported:
The indictment—which accused Epstein of knowingly recruiting underage women to engage in sex acts, sometimes over a period of years—came more than a decade after he pleaded guilty in Florida to state charges of solicitation of prostitution from a minor in a deal with prosecutors that has been widely criticized as too lenient.
“I’ve been absolutely infuriated by the use of phrases like ‘underage women’ or ‘young woman,’ when they’re talking about a child,” said Mejia.
The imagery that the press have chosen when covering this trial has depicted Epstein at the height of his power. Though his mug shot has run frequently, the public is now familiar with the massive photo archive of Epstein and Maxwell in glamorous settings next to celebrity friends.
The photos often appear without relevance to the story they purport to illustrate. In a 2019 Washington Post piece, Maxwell and Epstein pose with Donald and Melania Trump at a Mar-a-Lago party; the story is about whether Maxwell is the next target for prosecution after Epstein’s death. In CNN, a story headlined “Ghislaine Maxwell’s defense opens its case with testimony from former assistant and memory expert” highlights a photo of Maxwell affectionately nuzzling Epstein at a black-tie event.
“It sends a particular kind of message, continuing to situate this person in this kind of glorified life that he was living,” says Mejia. “A life that meant he was able to harm a tremendous number of people.” The photographs also reinforce the public perception that Epstein’s and Maxwell’s crimes are an entertainment story.
This framing comes at the expense of other, more substantive angles, unquestionably in the public interest, that might have been explored through this trial. The power dynamic between Epstein and Maxwell, and his potential mistreatment of her, differentiates the case from other recent trials like Harvey Weinstein’s or Bill Cosby’s. So does the fact that Epstein’s and Maxwell’s victims were children. “We’re also hearing much more about class this time, and the complicated dynamics that this web of people created in the Palm Beach house,” Mejia says. “The victims there were people from West Palm Beach, from very poor areas, whose parents were drug addicts, and who didn’t have anything. This is what we’ve heard from them. Epstein offered them a way out. They’ve said, ‘I thought, This is my way out. I took it.’ ”
At the end of each day of the trial, a stream of reporters poured down the stairs and toward the waiting news crews. A few broadcasters would record the day’s updates under the glare of studio lights. But most of the journalists would reach the flagstones and stare blankly at the cluster of lenses trained back on them by the pack of waiting photojournalists and news camera operators.
YouTubers and other independent news reporters would find a place on the steps to update their followers.
One night, my phone buzzed. “Ghislaine maxwell journalist/activist holiday get together, no madks [sic] or vax passport required 6pm at O’Hara’s,” read a text from Adds. We were out of the trenches until morning.
“Wow I’m tired—I might have to write this up tomorrow,” Jessica Reed Kraus told me one night. Reed Kraus is the owner of @houseinhabit, a popular independent Instagram news account based out of Southern California. She told me she had gained over a hundred thousand followers in the first two weeks of the trial alone. Before her trip to New York, which was funded by her readers, she’d been reporting on the Britney Spears conservatorship suit.
“Oh look, here comes the sister.”
Reed Kraus and I both lifted our phones as Isabelle Maxwell lugged a Jansport backpack and a large, wheeled suitcase down Centre Street. “She always waits until she’s out on the street to call a car,” Reed Kraus said.
“You come out here, stand out here, knowing we’ll come all around you,” said a videographer. Isabelle leaned against a traffic post and stared back at the cameras. Night after night, she had been the only show in town.
“She never makes no comments or anything,” said a videographer from the huddle.
“Would you like to tell us why you never say anything?” asked another.
Isabelle’s car service took forever. The cameras sparkled in the glow of the courthouse, office windows twinkling behind them. Most of us stayed and stared and filmed until it was over.
TOP IMAGE: Ghislaine Maxwell, the Jeffrey Epstein associate accused of sex trafficking, attends her trial in New York City, December 8, 2021. REUTERS/Jane Rosenberg