The Great Lesson in Law
Dispatches from the Maxwell Trial
Yesterday at the Ghislaine Maxwell trial was like being at the finals of the U.S. Open for the legal profession.
As I had predicted, AUSA Alison Moe and Maxwell defense attorney Laura Menninger both gave masterclasses in oratory, deploying very different styles for their closing arguments.
Moe’s opening salvo was completely devastating. Cleverly, she turned the defense’s opening arguments about the three “Ms” (manipulation, money, and memory) on its head:
“[A]t the beginning of this trial, defense counsel said to you that this case was about manipulation, money, and memory. And you know what? Defense counsel was exactly right, but not in the way she meant. Not at all.
This case was absolutely about manipulation. You learned about how Maxwell manipulated young girls, making them believe that she was their friend, making them feel special, all so they could be molested by a middle-aged man. And you heard from Dr. Rocchio, an expert psychologist, and you learned about how perpetrators manipulate their victims in a process called grooming. The evidence in this case overwhelmingly shows you that that's exactly what Maxwell did to these girls.
And make no mistake, this trial was absolutely about money. The evidence showed you that Maxwell and Epstein were a wealthy couple who used their privilege to prey on kids from struggling families.
Let me stop and say this: I want you to think about the few $100 that Carolyn got every time that she was sexually abused. And I want you to think about the $30 million that Ghislaine Maxwell got from Jeffrey Epstein. This case is about the way that Ghislaine Maxwell and Jeffrey Epstein exploited kids from struggling families. So when defense counsel talks to you about money, just think about that.
This trial was also about memory. When the witnesses took that witness stand, they told you about searing memories of childhood sexual abuse, traumatic memories that they've carried with them for years. That is what the evidence at this trial showed you.”
By the time Moe had finished (two and a half hours later), summing up a story wherein the power lay in its horrific simplicity, her argument was that we’d heard four different women tell versions of exactly the same story of underage exploitation and abuse.
I personally felt “game over.” I couldn’t see a way for Menninger to counterpunch.
And yet Menninger did. In her very matter-of-fact, understated way she laid out, point by point on screens, how there were multiple reasons not to believe every single accuser. The evenness of her tone disguised the magnitude of what she was claiming to the jury: that, essentially, every one of the alleged victims was a liar who was in this for the money— specifically Epstein’s money—and that she had all of their previous testimony about Epstein to prove it.
After Menninger finished, the consensus in the peanut gallery was we had now reached a tie.
But then AUSA Maurene Comey stood up and gave her a rebuttal. And, just, Wow.
I had said earlier in this trial that I had found the prosecution underwhelming, but they more than made up for any shortcomings with this final performance.
Comey opened by pointing at Maxwell and saying,
“I want to start off by making one thing very clear: this case is about that woman, it's about the children that she targeted, the steps that she took to serve those children up to be abused. It's about her own participation in that abuse when she touched Jane's breasts and Carolyn's breasts and Annie's breasts. This case is about Ghislaine Maxwell, the crimes she committed.”
Acting United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York Audrey Strauss speaks to the media at a press conference to announce the arrest of Ghislaine Maxwell on July 02, 2020 in New York City. || Spencer Platt /Getty
Comey’s show-stopping finale will be etched in my memory for years to come, not least because of her effective use of Thanksgiving as a metaphor.
She told jurors that in order to cut the four accusers slack about inaccuracies in their testimonies. To think of how they remembered their own Thanksgivings:
“Now imagine you were asked to recall a recurring event from years ago in your own lives. Say something like a holiday, like Thanksgiving. There is a routine you follow each year, the same food, the same people attend. That event stands out in your mind because it's significant, it's a holiday, but you won't necessarily remember the specific dinner conversation you had each year. You're sure you had turkey because that happened every time, but some details are just not going to stand out to you because essentially the same thing happens every year.
Now what might stand out is when a routine gets broken. Say one year a neighbor came over to join who was unexpected or you switched up salt and sugar and a pie got totally ruined. You'll remember that different thing, but you might not be able to remember which Thanksgiving that thing happened. Did the neighbor come when I was 14, or 15, or 16? What year was it that I ruined that pie and it was salty? Just because you can't remember exactly how old you were, which Thanksgiving it was, does that mean it didn't happen? Of course not.
The same is true of Jane and Carolyn. The abuse stands out in their mind because it was formative, but it happened so often that the details run together. They remember certain things like when someone else was in the room or going to get to see The Lion King during one of the trips, but those can be hard to place in time because of how frequent and similar their experiences were.
Now, by contrast, Annie had a much smaller window of interactions with Maxwell and Epstein. So for her, many more details stand out very vividly. It's less like Thanksgiving for her and more like a Sweet 16 party, something unique only happens once, so it stands out much more clearly in detail.”
When Comey was done, she said a quiet, “Thank you.”
The jurors appeared electrified.
In different circumstances we would all, I suspect, have burst in a rapturous applause and even shouted “encore,” but Judge Nathan moved on to read the insidious six counts with which Maxwell is charged, and we were soberly reminded that, for all the extraordinary performances, this is no Broadway show.
Instead, as the jury went off to deliberate, Nathan concluded what will be her last trial at the Southern District—she’s rising to the Second Circuit—by thanking the eight lawyers in the courtroom.
“Let me just thank counsel for your zealous advocacy,” she said. “The eight of you performed your duties with professionalism and excellence and I learned a lot from watching the eight of you. Thank you.”
I was glad she said that. Nathan is right.
I’ve never admired the legal profession so much as in the past four weeks. All eight lawyers have been outstanding in their very different ways, and, when you’ve been exposed to them in the way we have, their personalities shine through. I suspect much of the jury’s deliberations will be tinged with their unconscious feelings about the attorneys.
So, here’s a recap to give you a flavor of each—or at least what I’ve seen in the courtroom:
The four young prosecutors are zealous, committed, diligent—and complementary. The only male, Andrew Rohrbach, appears to be the wonk of the group. He’s the one who gets on his feet to argue legal technicalities with the judge and who has arcane case law at his fingertips.
Lara Pomerantz is physically tiny—when she stands behind the podium, she changes out of her flats into heels—but her presence in that courtroom is enormous. Her opening argument was brilliant for its clear, poignant storytelling, and, rather like her adversary Laura Menninger, her forte is her ability to ask tricky emotional questions with great calm.
I’ve written about Alison Moe both yesterday and above. It’s obvious that she is passionate about her work, quick on her feet, and ready to fight for every point. And, as I’ve said, that summation was devastating.
And finally, there is Maureen Comey—the daughter of the former FBI director—whose mother I spotted watching on Day One, presumably with understandable pride. Comey is clearly a star in the making. She has a commanding presence; she doesn’t over-talk, and one gets the sense she has the ability to keep a 40,000-foot perspective even when she’s dealing in granular details (hence the Thanksgiving metaphor).
I’ve also noticed that, despite all the tension between the two teams, Comey smiles and converses easily with the defense—a reminder that, at the end of the day, these lawyers all know it’s a small legal world and this is one case of many.
Bobbi Sternheim is the lead for the defense—and we journalists have been completely riveted by her style. That may sound superficial but, at this point, Sternheim, 68, is a war horse who doesn’t have anything to prove on her resume, so she enjoys discussing with us journalists the fact that, yes, she has a “signature look.” She has a punk haircut with a slight purple tinge, and her collars are always turned up at the neck. I’ve noticed she seldom takes notes, that everything is stored on the hard drive of her brain, and that she’s on her feet in a flash if she’s got an objection with a ready citation. It’s very clear that Judge Nathan has tremendous respect for Sternheim’s command of law.
Defense attorney for Ghislaine Maxwell Bobbi Sternheim arrives at the Thurgood Marshall United States Courthouse on December 16, 2021 in New York City. || David Dee Delgado / Getty
The “star” however of the defense, to my mind, is Christian Everdell (whose parents were also in court one day, quietly urging him on). Everdell is a former prosecutor for the Southern District (he led the investigation into cartel kingpin El Chapo), and it’s fallen to him to make many of the arguments about legal technicalities to the judge, who clearly likes him. Everdell’s gift is both his quickness and his likeability– which has been a necessity given that it’s been his lot to ask so many mind-numbing questions about flight logs that if he were anyone else, you’d hate him for creating total confusion and chaos out of charts that had appeared at first blush to be extremely simple.
The two lawyers from Denver, Colorado, are Jeffrey Pagliuca and Laura Menninger.
Pagliuca talks slowly and has a twinkle in his eyes. He exudes the aura of a genial professor, which belies the viciousness of his attacks. It was Pagliuca who stood up in court yesterday after Moe spoke and said that a mistrial should be declared. (He was overruled.) It was also Pagliuca whose cross-examination completely unnerved “Carolyn,” not least because he himself seemed so flummoxed finding the right page to look at her previous testimony that it was small wonder she also got confused.
And then there’s Menninger, who, like Moe, I’ve already written about. Her understatedness and calm is her weapon, and she used it most devastatingly on Accuser Number One, “Jane,” on whom a great deal of the case rests.
Finally, there is Judge Alison Nathan, whose grip over the court has not slackened for a second. She is always one step ahead of everybody else, she has outworked everyone—no small feat in this trial—and she has made both sides work for every victory.
I was warned ahead of these past few weeks not to presume anything about Nathan—and the warning came from Reid Weingarten, who is perhaps best known for being one of Jeffrey Epstein’s defense lawyers at the time of his death in August 2019.
Weingarten told me to study a trial Nathan presided over in March 2020, just as COVID-19 was breaking out.
Weingarten was one of the two defense lawyers before Nathan representing Ali Sadr Hashemi Nejad, an Iranian businessman a jury found guilty of sanctions violations. The charge was that Nejad had moved $115 million dollars in payments for his family business through the U.S. financial system and sent the money to his family in Iran.
Despite the guilty verdict, not only did Nejad not go to jail after the verdict—he ultimately walked away, completely exonerated, when just three months later, in June, the government decided to drop their case against Nejad citing “disclosure issues.”
But there was a twist. Because of Nathan, astonishingly, it was the government lawyers who then faced threat of investigation for alleged misconduct. Nathan ordered an inquiry into why and how they’d “buried” exculpatory evidence, the findings of which were ultimately horrifically damaging for the U.S. Attorney’s office. At one point, a prosecutor reportedly wrote “yeah, we lied” to another prosecutor, which was conveyed to Nathan— and subsequently made public, at her explicit command.
Weingarten says what she did was extraordinary: “Most judges would say, ‘Okay, it's your prerogative. I'm a little annoyed you made us go through this trial. You fucked up. But, if you want to dismiss, you dismiss and we move on.’ She did not do that. She wanted more… She was appalled by this. She demanded an explanation and dug deep into the innards of communication between prosecutors that almost always remained private. And that’s when she scared the shit out of this office.” (He’s referring to the office of the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York).
You can read the two strident opinions Nathan issued on the matter here: first in September of 2020 and then in February of 2021. She made the first one become mandatory reading for the entire prosecutorial team at the Southern District of New York. While Nathan ultimately said she found no “intentional” withholding of discovery by the government’s lawyers, she nonetheless instructed that there be an investigation by the Office of Professional Responsibility at the DOJ and new training protocols at the FBI.
“The government, I assume, was horrified when they drew her as a judge, given the experience they had with her,” Weingarten told me. “She's going to make the government prove its case, and she's going to understand the nuances, and she's going to understand the technicalities. And if the government doesn't have it, they're screwed.”
Well, she’s lived up to what Weingarten said.
The question remains: What will the jury think? Does the government “have it” or not?
It’s now entirely up to these twelve men and women.