The trial was a big win for sexual abuse victims
It shaped up to be a tough slog for witnesses testifying against Ghislaine Maxwell at her sexual abuse and trafficking trial, challenged to remember events as they happened twenty and thirty years ago. Wide speculation held it would all hinge on the credibility of the all-but-one pseudonymous victims.
Would they be believed? The defense team did what they were paid to do, attempt to discredit them and render their testimony too questionable.
It's every witness's worst nightmare, increased by the notoriety and sheer media circus surrounding Maxwell, the one that didn't get away.
Nevertheless, the jury returned guilty verdicts on five of six counts involving sex trafficking and sexual abuse of young girls, some beginning as young as fourteen. Maxwell is facing up to sixty-five years in prison.
They were believed.
I marvel at the sheer courage of the four who testified how Epstein and sometimes Maxwell herself sexually abused them. I'm cowed by the horror they faced reliving the nightmare, describing in graphic detail the horrific abuse of their young bodies by these two sexual predators, ruthlessly cross-examined by a hostile defense team.
Epstein can't be tried since he committed suicide in his jail cell a few years ago. But they got his raven-haired accomplice and partner-in-crime. She prospected, procured and groomed his victims for a man who allegedly wanted sex at least three times a day.
It's hard for sexual abuse and other crime victims to remember what happened to them even just the night before, much less decades later. When the amygdala, the fear center of the brain takes over from the prefrontal cortex, the more rational part, they're no longer in control of what they pay attention to so they may not be able to answer questions like what was he wearing and do you remember the mole on his neck. It becomes easy to poke holes in memories of ancient crimes, when accusers give different details over several interviews, in this case spanning many years.
The defense tried to portray the women as liars, shaming and blaming, but that tactic didn't work. Maybe we're finally coming to grips with #MeToo and the not-exactly-radical observation that rich, powerful men often think they're beyond the arms of common decency and the law. The defense argued the women did it for financial gain, except there was none to be had for testifying; they'd received money already from a victim compensation fund set up by the Jeffrey Epstein estate.
All that was in it for them was reliving horrible experiences, being derided as liars and opportunists and--hopefully, making Ghislaine Maxwell pay for the way she colluded to ruin their lives for her eternally smug-faced friend.
Yet they got five out of six guilty verdicts.
Why were they believed?
The defense brought to the witness stand a $600 an hour California psychologist and university professor, Elizabeth Loftus, who specializes in testifying for criminal trial defense teams to discredit witnesses. Loftus brought up many sound, established research findings into the malleability of memory, how false memories can be created, how memories change over time as we interpret them differently, how inaccurate details can be introduced and 'remembered' by witnesses, demonstrating just how suggestible and unreliable the human memory can be.
It's unclear why this tactic didn't work as effectively here as it has in other trials. Perhaps we've become more knowledgeable about psychology overall; a jury didn't buy R. Kelly's defense that someone like him didn't need to 'force' young women to have sex with him and that point is pretty inarguable. It's only a credible defense if you believe men only ever 'force' women because they can't get them otherwise. Today, we know far more about male psychology, especially rape motivations, and the satisfaction some receive in controlling, dehumanizing and degrading others, particularly women, for their sexual needs.
Perhaps #MeToo has done an effective job of highlighting just how much sexual abuse and harassment of women takes place, even among one's own friends and family. Women speak out more about the experience of having been controlled by an abusive partner or parent, and analyze why they stayed, why they put up with it, and how they were induced to submit.
The believability of the Maxwell accusers is something feminists, rape activists and others would do well to study to determine why the highly accomplished Loftus's testimony wasn't accepted by jurors. How did the prosecution respond? What did they say that might have discredited Loftus in the jury's minds? We need to know why.
Recognize this victory
Here's a sexual abuse statistic that won't surprise anyone: One hundred percent of unreported rapes or sexual assaults result in zero convictions.
One major obstacle to finding justice for abuse victims is that so many haven't historically been believed. Many victims may not even report because they're told by others, including other women, they won't be believed.
Easier to just pick up your life and move on as best you can. Why go through all that trauma again just to watch the SOB walk free?
Other times, the victim is believed and gets a conviction, but some judges are more concerned for the delicate sensibilities of a young rapist in the slammer than they are about the woman whose life he changed forever (perhaps not ruined, but sometimes).
Still, we need to celebrate the small victories, the baby steps toward making real gains in seeking justice for rape and sexual abuse victims, and not fall prey to the 'progressophobia' of thinking nothing ever changes, or that conditions are worse than ever before for victims. We need to celebrate our victories. We must acknowledge progress.
I wrote the above article on rapists to highlight that while convicted rapists may get lighter than hoped-for sentences, the accused still pay a price, even when they're acquitted. While Brock Turner got a light punishment for his conviction, his trial ended his dreams of Olympics glory and today works a low-paying job in obscurity while living with his parents in a small Ohio town. We forget that rape trials are traumatic also for the accused, who endure the massive anxiety of wondering what will happen to him. Of wondering whether the next time he's party to a rape he'll be on the receiving end, in prison. When you're sitting next to your lawyer in the courtroom, there are no do-overs.
To quote Dr. Branom in Stanley Kubrick's movie A Clockwork Orange, "Here's the punishment element perhaps."
The unpleasant fact is perpetrators must be reported and prosecuted more. A partial win is better than letting them get away with it. Of course, no one wants to be the one to pressure a crying, traumatized victim to report, although I don't see any other way around it.
These crimes must be reported, the sooner the better.
I hope the public experience of the Maxwell trial gives courage to others who suffered horrific abuses at the hands of entitled, above-the-law men, even those who aren't millionaires. These women were only four witnesses out of 150 victims who were paid out of the estate's victim compensation fund until the money ran out.
I'm heartened Maxwell didn't get away with it. Her four accusers were believed and were rewarded with five guilty verdicts. This is a BIG win for sexual assault victims.
Let's celebrate our victories, and build upon them for future trials.