Adults who sexually abuse children often use a methodical five-step process that involves selecting a victim, using “lies, deception and manipulation” to set the stage for abuse and then controlling their victims to carry out the abuse and avoid detection, an expert witness in Ghislaine Maxwell’s sex trafficking trial told jurors on Thursday morning.
That process is known as “grooming” and it is central to the prosecution’s case against Ms. Maxwell, who is on trial in federal court in Manhattan, and accused of helping her longtime companion, Jeffrey Epstein, abuse girls as young as 14.
Prosecutors have said that Ms. Maxwell played a pivotal role in Mr. Epstein’s abuse, bringing them into his world by taking some of the girls shopping, presenting herself as a mentor of sorts and instructing them on how Mr. Epstein liked to be touched.
The testimony of the expert witness, Lisa Rocchio, appeared to support the prosecution’s view of how Ms. Maxwell and Mr. Epstein operated. But during cross-examination, the defense challenged that idea while suggesting that the behavior that the prosecution had presented as “grooming” might have been innocuous.
Calling Dr. Rocchio to the stand had been the subject of a pretrial dispute between prosecutors and Ms. Maxwell’s defense, who argued that her testimony would be unreliable, irrelevant and prejudicial.
The judge overseeing the case, Alison Nathan, ruled that Dr. Rocchio’s views on grooming would be allowed. But Judge Nathan agreed with the defense’s argument that Dr. Rocchio’s should not be allowed to testify that the presence of a third party, such as Ms. Maxwell, could facilitate grooming. On the witness stand on Thursday, Dr. Rocchio did not raise that issue.
Dr. Rocchio has not interviewed any of the four women whose testimony is expected to provide the main basis for the prosecution of Ms. Maxwell. Rather, she said in court, her testimony was based on 30 years of experience as a clinical psychologist during which she treated hundreds of people who had been sexually abused as children.
“Childhood sexual abuse is a process,” Dr. Rocchio told jurors, adding that it begins with the selection and identification of a victim.
Abusers first try to obtain “access” to their victims and isolate them, then use falsehoods and manipulation to “build trust and attachment.”
Next, Dr. Rocchio testified, abusers generally try to desensitize children, first by acclimating them to physical touching. That step in the process is often accompanied by physical proximity, like sitting close to a child. Abusers then often work at “normalizing sexual activity” by discussing sex, telling sexual jokes and engaging in massages.
Finally, Dr. Rocchio testified, “all of that escalates to sexual abuse.”
The process that she outlined appeared to correspond closely with what a prosecutor, Lara Pomerantz, described to jurors in her opening statement. Ms. Pomerantz said that the sexual abuse alleged in the case “started with Epstein lying facedown for so-called massages” and escalated, with Mr. Epstein touching the girls sexually and directing them to massage him while he masturbated, among other sexual activities.
When it was the defense’s turn to question Dr. Rocchio on Thursday, one of Ms. Maxwell’s lawyers sought to bolster an idea offered during the defense’s opening statement. As part of that statement, a defense lawyer, Bobbi Sternheim, told jurors, “What we have here is lawful conduct that is going to be labeled grooming.” She asserted that prosecutors, were giving that label to otherwise innocuous conduct, like “asking someone what they like to do, whether they like a movie, whether they like going shopping.”
On Thursday, while cross-examining Dr. Rocchio, another defense lawyer, Jeffrey S. Pagliuca, asked: “These behaviors that you are referring to as grooming be can also be non-grooming behaviors?”
Dr. Rocchio said that could be the case. But she went on to suggest that whether a certain behavior was grooming or not had to do largely with the intentions of the adult involved.
Grooming is not codified in law as a crime, but it is at the center of the sex-trafficking charges against Ghislaine Maxwell: “Grooming,” “groom” and “groomed” appear nine times in the federal indictment charging her of conspiring with her longtime companion, Jeffrey Epstein, to sexually exploit vulnerable girls.
Grooming, legal experts say, is a gradual process whereby an abuser wins the trust and cooperation of a potential victim, starting with interactions that seem normal and benign, like paying special attention or offering compliments and gifts.
Next the abuser acclimates the victim to physical touching and sexual references, breaking down ordinary boundaries. Gradually, the predator exposes the victim to sexual behaviors, like light touching, to desensitize them. The process is aimed at breaking down resistance and making the victim feel complicit or responsible when the activities escalate to sexual abuse or assault, so the victim is less likely to recognize the abuse or report it.
“A predator grooms their victims in order to earn their trust,” William F. Sweeney Jr., the head of the F.B.I.’s New York office, said in September after charging Robert A. Hadden, a former Manhattan gynecologist, in the sexual abuse of six female patients, including one minor.
The former film producer Harvey Weinstein and the former gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar were also accused of grooming their victims as a way to coerce sexual acts without necessarily using physical force: Mr. Weinstein dangled hopes for movie stardom and Dr. Nassar suggested to young gymnasts that his assaults were part of routine exams.
The concept of grooming in sexual abuse cases is only the word’s latest meaning, giving a dark, duplicitous connotation a word whose usual meaning is tending to one’s personal appearance or hygiene.
In the 13th century, grooms were male servants who helped their employers with dressing and daily activities. By the 1600s, the word came to mean a worker who takes care of horses. In 1887, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word was first used to mean coaching someone, as in “grooming a successor.”
The first published use of the term in a sexual abuse context was in 1985, when the Chicago Tribune described “friendly molesters” who gained trust while “secretly grooming the child as a sexual partner.”
That use of the word has become more widespread in recent years with high-profile cases of Catholic priests who approached vulnerable families as helpers or mentors before sexually abusing children, and with the wave of #MeToo accusations of sexual assault, harassment and abuse in the workplace.
By the end of her testimony on Wednesday, the first accuser to take the stand in the sex-trafficking trial of Ghislaine Maxwell was crying into a bundle of tissues.
During several hours of cross-examination of the witness, identified only as “Jane,” a defense attorney for Ms. Maxwell asked questions that sought to cast doubt on the story that Jane had shared a day before: of a troubled family and financial situation that left her vulnerable to abuse by the notorious sex offender Jeffrey Epstein and Ms. Maxwell, who is accused of luring teenage girls for Mr. Epstein to abuse.
Jane is now a working actress, and the lawyer for Ms. Maxwell, Laura Menninger, appeared to suggest that Jane’s testimony was just another performance, and that she was motivated by financial gain.
Later, when Alison Moe, a federal prosecutor, had an opportunity to question Jane again, Ms. Moe asked her what it meant to be awarded $5 million from a fund set up to compensate victims of Jeffrey Epstein’s sexual exploitation.
“I wish I would have never received that money in the first place,” Jane said, crying. “Hopefully this just puts it to an end and I can move on with my life,” she added.
Three more accusers are expected to testify against Ms. Maxwell, whose trial began on Monday in Federal District Court in Manhattan. Ms. Maxwell, a longtime companion of Mr. Epstein, was arrested in 2020, about a year after Mr. Epstein hanged himself in a Manhattan jail cell. He had also been charged with trafficking girls.
Here are some takeaways from the third day of the trial:
The defense suggested Jane actually came from a supportive family with means.
Ms. Menninger began her cross-examination with questions about Jane’s applications to attend the Interlochen summer camp in Michigan. She read from a recommendation that said Jane and her two brothers, who also attended the camp, came from “a strong, loving family background” and that they represented the “rebirth of the von Trapp family” from “The Sound of Music.”
Ms. Menninger read from documentation that said the cost of the camp was over $4,000 per child for the summer, but that Jane and her siblings never applied for financial aid or scholarships for the three summers they attended. Jane said she did not recognize the document but recognized her signature and believed it was her application.
The defense questioned Jane’s account of Ghislaine Maxwell’s involvement in her abuse.
Ms. Menninger used her cross-examination to focus on what Jane told federal investigators in 2019 and 2020 about the sexual abuse she said she faced at the hands of Mr. Epstein and Ms. Maxwell. Ms. Menninger implied that those recounts differed from what she testified about on Tuesday.
“Two years later, now you remember that Ghislaine called your home to make appointments?” Ms. Menninger asked Jane on Wednesday.
“Right,” Jane responded.
“That memory has come back to you in the past two years?” Ms. Menninger pressed.
“Memory is not linear,” Jane replied.
The defense suggested that Jane’s testimony was just another performance.
During her cross-examination of Jane, who is an actress on a soap opera, Ms. Menninger asked Jane two questions: Is an actor “someone who plays the role of a fictional character” and “someone who takes lines borrowed from a writer”?
“Yes,” Jane replied to both.
Ms. Menninger asked if characters in soap operas had “tangled interpersonal relationships,” and if they responded in a “melodramatic and sentimental” way. She asked if Jane had played a number of different characters, including a protective mother, a prostitute, a car-crash victim and someone stalked by serial killers.
Jane answered yes, and quipped, “Not my favorite story line,” when asked about her role as a prostitute.
When it was time for a final set of questions from the government, the prosecutor asked Jane if she knew the difference between acting and testifying in court.
“Acting on television is not real and testifying in court is real and is the truth,” Jane replied. She said that she was not acting on the witness stand.
A former boyfriend said Jane told him about some of the abuse.
An ex-boyfriend of Jane who testified as “Matt” said Jane told him that she had “a godfather, an uncle, a family friend-type person who helped her mom pay the bills,” but never told him what she had to do to get the money. She only said, “It wasn’t free,” Matt told the jury Wednesday.
Matt said that Jane told him that Mr. Epstein had an adult female friend who “made her feel comfortable” spending time with the financier as a teenager — but did not mention Ms. Maxwell by name. It was only after Ms. Maxwell’s 2020 arrest that Jane confirmed that she was the woman, he said.
Colin Moynihan contributed reporting.
Jeffrey Epstein looms over nearly every aspect of the sex-trafficking trial of his former partner, Ghislaine Maxwell, but his suicide in a federal jail cell in Manhattan removed any possibility of hearing the evidence against him at trial.
Mr. Epstein was found dead in his cell at the Metropolitan Correction Center at 6:30 a.m. on Aug. 10, 2019, while awaiting trial on federal sex-trafficking charges. The New York City medical examiner determined he had hanged himself with a bedsheet on a night when he was alone because his cellmate had been transferred.
His death in Manhattan set off a rash of unfounded conspiracy theories on social media that were picked up and repeated by high-profile figures, including Mayor Bill de Blasio and former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani. But investigations by the F.B.I. and the Justice Department’s Inspector General found no evidence of a conspiracy, proving Mr. Epstein’s death was a suicide, the Attorney General at the time, William P. Barr, later said.
It was not the first time he had tried to kill himself. A month earlier, after being denied bail on federal sex trafficking charges, Mr. Epstein was found unconscious in his jail cell with marks on his neck in what prison officials investigated as a suicide attempt.
The Friday morning before he died, thousands of documents from a civil suit had been released, providing lurid accounts accusing Mr. Epstein of sexually abusing scores of girls.
Investigations into the suicide found jail officials had made serious mistakes. Mr. Epstein was supposed to have been checked by the two guards in the protective housing unit every 30 minutes, but that procedure was not followed that night. One of the guards was not a full-fledged correction officer.
In addition, because of Mr. Epstein’s earlier attempted suicide, he was supposed to have had another inmate in his cell, officials said. But the jail had recently transferred his cellmate and allowed Mr. Epstein to be housed alone, a decision that also violated the jail’s procedures, the two officials said.
Two days after Mr. Epstein died, Mr. Barr said he “was appalled” by the suicide and sharply criticized the management of the jail. He ordered a full investigation. The warden was transferred.
The two guards, Michael Thomas and Tova Noel, were charged criminally with ignoring their duties and then lying about it. Prosecutors said the guards had been browsing the internet and napping rather than checking on Mr. Epstein every half-hour as they were supposed to the night he died. They were also accused of falsifying official logs, recording they had made the rounds. In May, they reached an agreement with prosecutors that allowed them to avoid prosecution and do community service.
This year, a trove of more than 2,000 pages of Federal Bureau of Prisons records obtained by The New York Times after filing a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit suggested Mr. Epstein had gone to lengths to persuade jail officials that he was not suicidal after the first apparent attempt to hang himself in July 2019.
The notes and reports compiled by those who interacted with Mr. Epstein during his 36 days of detention show how he repeatedly assured them he had much to live for, while also hinting that he was despondent. After the first attempt, for instance, Jeffrey Epstein said he was living a “wonderful life,” denying any thoughts of ending it, even as he sat on suicide watch.
“I have no interest in killing myself,” Mr. Epstein told a jailhouse psychologist. He was a “coward” and did not like pain, he explained. “I would not do that to myself.”
In recent weeks, the country has watched two gripping trials with wide social resonance unfold on television and computer screens.
Video broadcasts allowed an untold number of people to watch the trial and acquittal of Kyle Rittenhouse, who killed two people during a protest over a police shooting in Kenosha, Wis. A similarly large audience watched the trial and conviction of three white men in Georgia charged in the murder of a Black jogger, Ahmaud Arbery. In the past, such access would likely have required a seat inside a courtroom.
So why is Ghislaine Maxwell’s sex trafficking trial not equally accessible? The answer has to do with the difference in jurisdictions — federal court in the case of Ms. Maxwell, and county courts in the other two.
There are specific, sometimes arcane rules that govern federal proceedings. Though the federal judiciary has experimented with pilot programs allowing cameras in civil cases, the broadcast of criminal cases has been barred since 1946 under Rule 53 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure.
By contrast, some state and county courts for decades have had latitude to allow trial broadcasts. For instance, in 1993, the Los Angeles County Superior Court let Court TV broadcast the trial of Erik and Lyle Menendez, brothers who used shotguns to kill their parents but claimed they did so in self-defense after years of sexual and psychological torture.
Vivid scenes with weeping defendants and dramatic cross-examinations helped create a cultlike following among some of those who tuned in. Soon afterward, Court TV and the E Channel both covered O.J. Simpson’s murder trial live from Los Angeles County. Those proceedings, too, drew devoted audiences.
But the televised trials also had their critics, who complained that the national audience encouraged lawyers, judges and witnesses to grandstand.
The first attempt to prosecute the Menendez brothers ended with jurors unable to agree on a verdict. The judge handling the case, Stanley M. Weisberg, believed that the television coverage had affected many potential jurors for the retrial and barred electronic coverage of the second trial to “protect the rights of the parties, the dignity of the court and assure the orderly conduct of the proceedings.”
In 1994, the U.S. Judicial Conference, which sets policy for federal courts, voted down a proposed amendment to Rule 53, which would have allowed cameras in criminal proceedings. The conference also rejected a similar proposal to allow the recording and broadcast of civil proceedings, concluding “the intimidating effect of cameras on some witnesses and jurors was cause for concern.”
People who want to keep track of legal proceedings remotely in federal cases in New York may have an easier time when verdicts are appealed. The Second Circuit, which hears appeals in New York State, as well as in Connecticut and Vermont, has a web page for the “livestream audio” of oral arguments. Those who tune in cannot watch what is happening inside the courtroom but can listen to what is being said.
The sex trafficking trial of Ghislaine Maxwell, a former girlfriend and longtime associate of Jeffrey Epstein, is set to begin Monday. Here are some of the events that led to the highly anticipated trial:
July 7, 2019
Mr. Epstein was arrested at Teterboro Airport in New Jersey.
Federal prosecutors accused Mr. Epstein of engaging in criminal sex acts with minors and women, some as young as 14.
Aug. 10, 2019
Mr. Epstein killed himself in his Manhattan jail cell.
Mr. Epstein hanged himself in his jail cell in the Metropolitan Correctional Center; he was not under suicide watch at the time of his death. He had just been denied bail on federal sex trafficking charges.
Ms. Maxwell sued Mr. Epstein’s estate.
Ms. Maxwell said in the lawsuit that Mr. Epstein and Darren Indyke, a longtime lawyer for Mr. Epstein and the executor of his estate, both promised to pay her legal fees, but she said they hadn’t. Her legal fees mounted as more women claimed she helped Mr. Epstein recruit them for sexual activity when they were underage.
Ms. Maxwell was arrested in New Hampshire.
The indictment listed three minor victims who say they were recruited by Ms. Maxwell from 1994 to 1997 for criminal sexual activity.
Ms. Maxwell asks for release on $5 million bond.
Her lawyers asked a federal judge in Manhattan to release her from jail on $5 million bond. Judge Alison J. Nathan of the Federal District Court in Manhattan denied the request after prosecutors argued that Ms. Maxwell posed a high risk of fleeing before her trial.
Ms. Maxwell calls jail “oppressive.”
Ms. Maxwell asked again to be released, this time on $28.5 million bond, arguing that the conditions of her Brooklyn jail were “oppressive.” But once again the request was denied, after prosecutors said the probability she would flee was extremely high. Prosecutors also said the conditions in jail were reasonable, pointing to her personal shower, phone and two computers.
Ms. Maxwell is charged with sex trafficking a 14-year-old.
A new indictment accuses Ms. Maxwell of grooming an additional minor. She is charged with sex trafficking a 14-year-old girl who engaged in sexual acts with Mr. Epstein at his Palm Beach, Fla., estate.
Ms. Maxwell goes on trial.
Opening arguments are set for Monday.
Ghislaine Maxwell faces six counts in her federal trial, which relate to accusations that she facilitated the sexual exploitation of girls for her longtime companion, the disgraced financier and sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.
The six counts center on the accounts of four accusers. The charges include:
One count of enticement of a minor to travel to engage in illegal sex acts, in which Ms. Maxwell is accused of coercing one girl — identified as Minor Victim 1 in charging documents — to travel from Florida to New York, between 1994 and 1997, to engage in sex acts with Mr. Epstein.
One count of transportation of a minor with intent to engage in illegal sex acts, which accuses Ms. Maxwell of bringing the same girl from Florida to New York on numerous occasions.
One count of sex trafficking of a minor, which charges that between 2001 and 2004, Ms. Maxwell recruited, enticed and transported another girl — identified in the charges as Minor Victim 4 — to engage in at least one commercial sex act with Mr. Epstein.
And three counts of conspiracy, which are related to the other counts. The conspiracy counts in the indictment are more expansive, involving all four accusers and homes in the United States and in London. These charges involve accusations that Ms. Maxwell worked with Mr. Epstein to secure underage girls for sex acts, for example, by encouraging one to give Mr. Epstein massages in London between 1994 and 1995.
Ms. Maxwell, 59, could face a lengthy prison term if convicted. Conspiracy to commit sex trafficking of minors carries a maximum 40 year sentence; the other charges have maximum penalties of five or 10 years.
When Ms. Maxwell was arrested in July 2020, she was also charged with two counts of perjury, accusing her of lying under oath in 2016 during depositions for a lawsuit related to Mr. Epstein. In April, Judge Alison J. Nathan granted the defense’s request to sever the perjury counts, which will be tried separately.