By the time Ghislaine Maxwell, dressed in blue prison garb and shackles, walked into a Manhattan courtroom on Tuesday morning, her descent from the heights of society and wealth had been well in the making. In the two years since the British heiress’s arrest on charges of abetting Jeffrey Epstein’s sexual abuse of children, the contrast between her life of glamour and the sordid crimes of which she’s been accused had been the animating substance of an unrelenting international saga and a closely watched federal case. News crews filled the sidewalks outside Thurgood Marshall U.S. Courthouse as Maxwell waited to learn what her prison sentence would be.
In late December, after a three-week trial, a federal jury found Maxwell guilty on five charges of aiding Epstein’s abuse. After the Southern District of New York probation department recommended a 20-year sentence, Maxwell’s attorneys argued for four to five years, and prosecutors asked for between 30 and 55. Maxwell is 60 years old. On Tuesday, after hearing statements from victims of Epstein and Maxwell and arguments from the government and Maxwell’s defense, Judge Alison Nathan handed down a 20-year sentence.
Epstein’s 2019 death in federal custody while awaiting trial, which authorities ruled a suicide, prompted a heightened outcry over the financier’s long trail of crimes, his connections to celebrities and global leaders, and the justice that he’d never see. (He negotiated a non-prosecution agreement while pleading guilty to soliciting a child for prostitution in 2008.) While Epstein never faced his victims in court, Maxwell, his foremost accomplice who shared in his riches and status, listened on in November and December as four women testified about the ruin the pair brought to their lives.
Tuesday’s sentencing hearing provided a further venue for these accounts. Sarah Ransome, whose recent book, Silenced No More, detailed her experiences with Epstein and Maxwell, stood near the socialite as she addressed her. She said that the pair’s “dungeon of sexual hell” eventually lead her to two suicide attempts.
“To Ghislaine, I say, you broke me in unfathomable ways,” Ransome continued, “but you did not break my spirit.”
During the victim statements, Maxwell, for the most part, looked straight ahead or at the table in front of her. She occasionally whispered to her lawyers between the statements.
“In more ways than one, they almost killed me,” Elizabeth Stein said as she turned to Maxwell. She noted that “for the past 25 years, Ghislaine Maxwell has been free to live a life of wealth and privilege that is almost incomprehensible.”
When it came time for Maxwell and her attorneys to make their plea to Nathan, they offered some penance, but nothing so firm as an admission of responsibility. Maxwell’s lead attorney, Bobbi Sternheim drew a parallel between her “narcissistic, brutish father”—the late, disgraced publishing baron Robert Maxwell—and the “controlling, demanding, and manipulative Jeffrey Epstein” and said that her client’s childhood experience should be factored into her sentence.
When Maxwell took the podium shortly after, her statement constituted her most extensive public comments in years.
“It is hard for me to address the court after listening to the pain and anguish expressed in the statements today,” she said in a mostly steady voice.
Maxwell said that in her two years of solitary confinement since her arrest, she had had ample opportunity to reflect on her relationship with Epstein, his “profoundly compartmentalized life,” and how he “fooled all of those in his orbit.” She described her association with him as “the greatest regret of my life” and one that would “forever and permanently stain me.”
“Jeffrey Epstein should have been here before all of you,” Maxwell said. She noted the years 2005, 2009, and 2019: “all the many times he was accused, charged, and prosecuted.”
But while Maxwell conceded that “today it is not about Epstein ultimately,” she left her apology to victims inside and outside the courtroom in the passive voice: “I’m sorry for the pain you have experienced.”
In announcing her sentencing decision and its rationale, Nathan paused to parse that kind of language. She noted that the abuse described over the course of the trial happened “by and with Epstein,” and repeated those words again. “Maxwell is not being punished in place of Epstein,” Nathan said, in what could amount to a rejoinder to Maxwell’s central argument at trial: that she had been scapegoated. Maxwell was “instrumental” to Epstein’s abuse, Nathan said, and “she participated in some of the abuse.”
Sternheim and Maxwell acknowledged the courage and pain of the victims who had spoken, Nathan continued. But “what wasn’t expressed,” she said, “was acceptance of responsibility.”