While many believe Maxwell will name names for a lighter sentence, it’s not so straightforward
With a guilty verdict handed down on five of the six sex trafficking charges against her, Ghislaine Maxwell now faces the possibility of spending the rest of her life in prison.
On Wednesday, the 60-year-old British socialite was convicted of sex trafficking, three conspiracy charges, and of transporting a minor to engage in sexual activity. The total possible sentence amounts to 65 years.
Even the most lenient sentencing looks bleak for Maxwell, so what are her options now?
There are two courses of action Maxwell can take – she can continue to fight and appeal her conviction, or she can cooperate with federal prosecutors and reveal details concerning anyone else’s involvement in the crimes for which she has been convicted.
Her family have already said they plan to appeal.
Outside the courthouse in lower Manhattan on Wednesday night, Maxwell’s attorney Bobbi C Sternheim said: “We firmly believe in Ghislaine’s innocence. Obviously, we are very disappointed with the verdict. We have already started working on the appeal and we are confident that she will be vindicated.”
However, with five convictions, it is highly unlikely that the case against Maxwell would be completely overturned and a lengthy prison sentence is still all but guaranteed by following this route. Judge Alison Nathan has yet to schedule a sentencing hearing in the case.
Questions over the validity of testimony from certain witnesses, time elapsed since the events, and other factors that may have influenced the jury, are highly unlikely to overturn the overall outcome of the trial.
A judge may not even agree there is a legal basis for an appeal, but faced with the prospect of spending the rest of her life in prison, Maxwell is expected to pursue this course of action anyway.
The bigger question is whether Maxwell now decides to cooperate with the authorities and potentially name names.
During the trial, a number of rich and powerful individuals were named by witnesses as associates of Maxwell’s. They ranged from Prince Andrew the Duke of York to Donald Trump, Bill Clinton, Alan Dershowitz and more.
While they all had social connections with Maxwell and the late convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein in the 1990s and 2000s, they have also all denied any wrongdoing and have not faced any charges.
Legal analyst Elie Honig, a former federal and state prosecutor, laid out how flipping and cooperating with prosecutors might work for Maxwell and what she and the authorities will have to consider.
First off, Mr Honig notes that Maxwell may not want to flip at all as there may be other factors in play.
“Maybe she doesn’t want to give up others; maybe she’s afraid; maybe she’s resigned to her fate; maybe she hates the prosecutors; maybe she thinks she’s innocent,” he says. “On paper, she should want to flip. But this isn’t always about paper.”
Such a calculation works both ways – the US Attorneys Office for the Southern District of New York (SDNY) also has to want her cooperation. Further to that point, cooperation has to be all-or-nothing, Mr Honig notes.
“Maxwell would have to give up everything she ever did, and everything she knows about anybody else,” he says. “No hedging, no holding back, no half-truths. If the SDNY is completely convinced she’ll do that, cooperation is possible.”
She would also have to be fully debriefed first and only then would the SDNY decide if she’s being entirely honest and if she is on board before giving her a deal.
“The SDNY doesn’t flip people on hope and credit. They make damn sure first,” says Mr Honig.
What makes the Maxwell case somewhat different to most instances in which a convicted criminal flips, is that the authorities usually prefer someone to flip in the hope of getting information on a more powerful player in the conspiracy.
In this instance, the number one person at the head of the conspiracy, Epstein, is dead. However, there are many potential ancillary players in the wider conspiracy who are major figures in their own right and Maxwell may have information on them – potentially that they knowingly had sex with one of the trafficked girls, or engaged in other criminal activity.
“The SDNY might in that scenario decide that it is worth it to flip her — but only if there’s a realistic way and prosecutorial commitment to charge those others, whoever they might be,” explains Mr Honig.
“That’ll depend on the willingness of the Department of Justice and SDNY, and perhaps state prosecutors, to go after these powerful people, and whether relevant laws (statutes of limitations, etc.) still permit such prosecutions.”
While popular opinion may be that Maxwell will now start naming names, there are, as Mr Honig points out, several things that must line up for this to happen.
Maxwell needs to be willing to talk and divulge everything; the SDNY needs to be convinced that what she says is true; and that information must be useful in pursuing other parties for any criminal wrongdoing.
Even if all of those pieces fall into place, do not expect her to receive a free pass or a get out of jail free card — she will still serve time in prison for her conviction of being involved in the sexual abuse of the girls at the centre of her trial.