Of all the photos to emerge during the trial of Ghislaine Maxwell, one image in particular is likely to lodge itself in the public imagination: of the British socialite Maxwell and her American financier boyfriend Jeffrey Epstein relaxing at the Queen’s residence in Balmoral, her hand on his leg, his gaze to the camera.
The photo is believed to have been taken in 1999, when the pair were reportedly invited to stay on the Scottish estate by Prince Andrew. When it was released to the media earlier this month, enterprising newspaper photo editors published the shot alongside another of the Queen sitting in the same place. “Even here” the photos said, “even this close to the top.”
Maxwell’s conviction this week (29 December) for five sex trafficking-related offences, including one of sex trafficking a minor, could see her imprisoned for up to 65 years. Epstein, of course, could not be convicted alongside her, since he died in custody in 2019 while awaiting trial, officially by suicide, although the manner of his death has been the subject of much debate in the years since.
The US attorney-general at the time, William Barr, described Epstein’s death as a consequence of a “perfect storm of screw-ups”, but many others – even a majority of Americans, according to some polls – did not believe that his death was suicide, but that he was murdered by someone rich, powerful and terrified of what Epstein might reveal if he ever stood trial.
We know that Epstein was friends with many rich and powerful people and, following Maxwell’s conviction, we also know that he regularly sexually abused teenage girls procured for him by Maxwell, some as young as 14. The conspiracists draw a connection between these facts and the surveillance cameras witnesses claim were fitted in bedrooms in Epstein’s many properties. They claim that these cameras were installed to collect material to be used for blackmail, suggesting that things happened in those bedrooms that should not have happened. It is a flimsy link, maybe, but given what we now know about what Maxwell and Epstein were guilty of, is it really so far-fetched to think that others could be also?
One alleged victim of Epstein and Maxwell’s sex trafficking operation, Virginia Giuffre, insists it is so, and is now pursuing a civil case against Prince Andrew, claiming that he had sex with her when she was underage – an allegation he strongly denies. Giuffre has made similar accusations against other famous men, and the flight logs of Epstein’s private jet – dubbed the “Lolita Express” in the media – give a long list of other figures who should also invite investigation.
Perhaps, you might think, the conviction of Ghislaine Maxwell will pacify both the victims and the conspiracy theorists. If nothing else, you might assume, Maxwell’s survival during the months spent in jail proves that there was no murderous plot to silence Epstein.
But the speculation won’t stop now. Maxwell’s lawyers attempted to persuade the jury that their client was being unfairly scapegoated for Epstein’s crimes because the man himself cannot now face justice. In a way, they made a good point. Maxwell is not a true scapegoat, since scapegoats are supposed to be innocent. Rather, she is a representative of a larger group, and so far the only one to face any legal consequences for her behaviour. Epstein cannot now stand trial, but there are plenty of others who still could.