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Ghislaine Maxwell was found guilty. But did survivors get justice?

Audrey Strauss, acting U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, points to a photo of Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell during a news conference in New York, July 2, 2020. (John Minchillo/AP)
Audrey Strauss, acting U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, points to a photo of Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell during a news conference in New York, July 2, 2020. (John Minchillo/AP)

Many view the guilty verdict in Ghislaine Maxwell’s sex trafficking trial as the end of the final chapter of this long, tragic saga. Survivors of Maxwell and Jeffrey Epstein’s sexual abuse expressed great relief after the news. “My soul yearned for justice and the jury gave me just that,” said Virginia Giuffre, a prominent victim of Epstein. Yet, despite the welcome result, Maxwell’s trial is likely not the end of the long, fraught road for survivors.

For decades, Epstein evaded detection by the criminal legal system as he engaged in prolific sexual abuse of young women and girls. Even when he eventually came to the attention of law enforcement in 2005, he marshaled considerable wealth and influence to avoid criminal prosecution and negotiate a lenient plea deal. “He thought he was untouchable,” one victim of Epstein observed. It was not until 2019 when criminal sex trafficking charges were brought against Epstein. But, in an instant, these efforts were thwarted by his suicide.

With every setback, survivors have tried to make the legal system work for them. They offered victim impact statements in district court when Epstein’s criminal charges were dismissed. They brought civil claims and applied for compensation from Epstein’s victim trust fund. Yet, justice was slow, and in many cases, elusive.

Kevin Maxwell and Isabel Maxwell leave the federal court as the trial of their sister, Ghislane Maxwell, continues in New York City on Dec. 1, 2021. (Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Kevin Maxwell and Isabel Maxwell leave the federal court as the trial of their sister, Ghislane Maxwell, continues in New York City on Dec. 1, 2021. (Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

In light of these challenges, many have viewed Maxwell’s trial as a way to provide much-needed closure and empowerment for survivors. But in many ways, it provided yet another space to humiliate and re-traumatize victims, as often occurs in sex-crime prosecutions. While the #MeToo movement drew attention to the prevalence of sex crimes, victims still face tremendous challenges when coming forward. They encounter stigma and shame both during and after the trial process. They also often experience privacy violations, as information about their identity is shared publicly. Some even face harassment, stigma and threats after they testify.

The Crime Victims’ Rights Act, passed by Congress in 2004, provides victims with “[t]he right to be treated with . . . respect for [their] dignity and privacy” during the criminal process. However, these legal protections have often been insufficient and under-enforced. Also, less attention and resources have focused on the long-term impact of the trial process itself on victims.

Maxwell’s case is a good example. Victims faced grueling cross-examination and privacy violations throughout the trial. Maxwell’s lawyers attacked victims’ credibility by invoking stereotypes about substance use and delays in reporting the abuse. The defense also suggested that victims lied to receive payouts from the Epstein Victims’ Compensation Program.

Two victims also had their privacy violated in ways that will likely have long-lasting consequences. Defense counsel used their real names in open court after they had been promised anonymity, heard by those in the courtroom and three overflow rooms. Although major news outlets refrained from publishing them, their names are likely to be shared online, leaving them vulnerable to cyber-bullying, threats and harassment.

'After the trial, it’s like grief, you know?'

Sexual assault victim

Privacy violations like these are, unfortunately, common in sex crimes cases, and they can have severe, long-term consequences. In another high-profile case, for example, a rape victim’s name was leaked during the criminal proceeding, and she faced harassment and threats resulting in significant trauma.

While some aspects of the trial process, like the constitutional right to confront one’s accuser through cross-examination, are integral to our criminal system, they often come with heavy costs for victims, in the courtroom and beyond. While much research explores victim experiences with early stages of the criminal process, there is significantly less on the consequences of participating in trials, particularly in the longer term. This gap exists, in part, because the vast majority of cases in this country do not go to trial, making it difficult to research.

However, we can learn from research conducted in other jurisdictions. A study in New Zealand, for example, highlighted how the verdict and sentencing impacted victims of sexual violence, regardless of the trial’s outcome. One survivor explained, “After the trial, it’s like grief, you know? It’s such a massive build-up to this one event. And then it just drops off[.]” Another shared, “You go through this process, your adrenaline’s going, then suddenly everything’s finished[.] And life goes back to normal, but there’s no normal anymore ... I’m still struggling with it.”

In the aftermath of Maxwell’s trial, survivors have good reason to celebrate. But, their journey is likely far from over, as Maxwell appeals and some continue to seek justice through the civil system. They will probably experience reverberations from the trial in their lives for some time. The fight to hold enablers accountable may take years to be realized, if at all. As Virginia Giuffre explained, “It’s definitely not over. There are so many more people involved with this. It doesn’t stop with Maxwell.”

While pursuing these battles provides a sense of purpose and justice for survivors, it forces many to continuously relive past traumas. Epstein’s victims, no doubt, deserve to move on with their lives. But, for many, the story is far from over.

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Related:

Julie Dahlstrom Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Julie Dahlstrom is a clinical associate professor and the director of the BU Law Immigrants’ Rights and Human Trafficking.

More…

Rachel J. Wechsler Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Rachel J. Wechsler is a research fellow at the Zimroth Center on the Administration of Criminal Law at the NYU School of Law.

More…

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