Prosecutors and a media coalition are opposing the request.
Attorneys for Ghislaine Maxwell, the alleged accomplice of deceased sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, are set to appear before a federal judge Thursday afternoon to argue that prospective jurors for her criminal trial should be questioned individually and privately to ensure she receives a fair trial by an “open-minded jury.”
The extraordinary measures are necessary, Maxwell’s lawyers contend, to effectively screen for potential bias and for exposure to a “tsunami” of publicity about the high-profile sex-trafficking case.
“This case amplifies the likelihood that jurors will be more apprehensive and constrained to respond openly and honestly in open court within earshot of other jurors, members of the public, and the media,” Maxwell attorney Bobbi Sternheim wrote in a court filing last week.
The proposal from Maxwell’s defense team, which federal prosecutors oppose, would be a departure from typical procedure in the Manhattan federal court where her trial is scheduled. In most instances, a judge conducts screenings of groups of prospective jurors in open court after consulting with prosecutors and defense counsel about the questions to be posed.
In a court filing last week, prosecutors contended that Maxwell had presented “no persuasive reason” to depart from the “well-established practice.”
“The Court should ask most questions in open court and ask sensitive questions, such as those that relate to sexual abuse and media exposure, at sidebar,” wrote Assistant U.S. Attorney Alison Moe.
But Maxwell’s lawyers argue those conventional procedures are “inadequate” to ferret out potential bias and prejudice because of the sensitive nature of the charges and the “intense negative media coverage” about Maxwell and Epstein “in every conceivable form.”
“The negative publicity has been so pervasive, vitriolic, and extreme that Ms. Maxwell has been demonized in the press,” Sternheim wrote.
Private and individual questioning “would encourage potential jurors to answer questions more completely and honestly because the jurors would not be influenced by (or influence) the answers given by fellow jurors or fear embarrassment in giving an honest response,” Sternheim added.
Maxwell’s defense team also is asking the court to permit her lawyers and prosecutors to question each potential juror individually for up to three minutes after the court concludes its inquiries.
Late Wednesday, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and a coalition of 17 media organizations registered objections to the proposed secrecy surrounding the jury selection process, known as “voir dire.”
“Voir dire is a critical stage of criminal proceedings, and the public interest in favor of access to voir dire is correspondingly weighty,” RCFP attorney Katie Townsend wrote in a letter to U.S. District Judge Alison Nathan, who’s overseeing Maxwell’s case.
The media coalition, which includes ABC News, argued that a proposed jury questionnaire that was filed under seal last week by Maxwell’s attorneys — without government objection — should be made part of the public record. Maxwell’s lawyers contend the documents should remain sealed “to avoid media coverage that may prejudice the jury selection process.”
“Such conclusory speculation cannot overcome the deeply rooted presumption of openness applicable to voir dire,” Townsend argued. “The defense’s request to seal provides the Court with no basis on which to make the specific factual findings required to conceal voir dire, including the parties’ joint juror questionnaire, from the public.”
Maxwell, 59, has pleaded not guilty to charges that she “assisted, facilitated and contributed” to Epstein’s abuse of four minor girls from 1994 to 2004. Prosecutors allege Maxwell befriended the young girls and helped to put them at ease, knowing that they would eventually be sexually abused by Epstein.
Maxwell’s lawyers have argued in court filings that federal prosecutors pursued charges against her as a “substitute” for Epstein, who died by suicide in a New York federal jail in 2019 while awaiting trial on sex trafficking charges.
Jury selection is set to begin in Maxwell’s case on Nov. 15, with the trial scheduled to open two weeks later.