After a long trial followed by over forty hours of jury deliberations, Ghislaine Maxwell finally stands convicted of several federal charges relating to the sexual abuse of minors. Ms. Maxwell somewhat curiously chose not to testify in her own defense, and she now faces a sentence of up to 65 years in federal prison. Ms. Maxwell’s fight is far from over, but ultimately it will almost certainly lead to one final choice: cooperate with the government or die in prison.
After a federal conviction – by guilty plea or by jury verdict – the defendant is interviewed by a specialized officer from the U.S. Department of Probation. These officers typically have backgrounds in social work, and it is their responsibility to prepare a biography – or presentence report – for the court. The judge uses this presentence report at sentencing to understand the defendant’s life, background, and circumstances. (The Bureau of Prisons also uses this report in determining the defendant’s prison designation.) The preparation of a report can easily take two months or more, as the interview has to be scheduled, a draft report prepared, edits and objections made by both the defense and the prosecution, and a final draft with a sentencing recommendation submitted to the sentencing court.
Following the preparation of the presentence report, both the prosecution and defense prepare sentencing memoranda for the judge. Both sides make arguments about the proper application of the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines and the sentencing factors pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a). Defense lawyers usually submit character letters from friends and family of the defendant, and sometimes the defendant also submits his/her own letter of remorse. Eventually, the sentencing court then holds a sentencing hearing at which both sides make oral arguments about the sentence and the court pronounces its decision. That sentencing hearing could be anywhere from 4 to 6 months after the conviction, though it could take even longer.
Every federal offense has a maximum and a minimum possible prison penalty, but it is the Sentencing Guidelines that help courts and defendants understand what Congress considers reasonable with more precision. The U.S. Sentencing Commission promulgates Sentencing Guidelines for each offense that includes factors for the courts to consider for each type of offense. For example, the Guidelines instruct the courts to consider a defendant’s role in the offense, how much money was stolen, how many drugs were trafficked, whether firearms were used or not in the offense, and whether any minors were injured.
It is thus extremely difficult to estimate Ms. Maxwell’s sentencing range under the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines without knowing all the details of the case and her background, but she is clearly facing a significant sentence. When a person is convicted of sex trafficking or enticement of multiple individuals, the Guidelines instruct that a person should receive consecutive sentences for each victim. Here, there are three victims in the case with corresponding convictions, so the penalties for each offense will “stack,” rather than be imposed concurrently. See U.S.S.G. 2G1.1(d)(1). Assuming Ms. Maxwell has no prior criminal record, she is probably looking at Guidelines ranges of around 97-121 months per victim, imposed consecutively. U.S.S.G. 2A3.1(a)(2). The court and parties will refer to the Sentencing Table to calculate the Guidelines range for each offense. See Table. There could be other aggravating factors or reasons for departures from these Guidelines calculations, however, so this is hardly a definitive calculation. Regardless, a very rough and preliminary estimate has her realistically facing thirty years under the Guidelines, or more. Ms. Maxwell is sixty years old.
Following the sentencing, Ms. Maxwell will be able to pursue a direct appeal to the federal appeals court (in this case, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals). She can make legal arguments about alleged mistakes by the trial court in its rulings and/or arguments that the sentence was excessive. Prior to sentencing, Ms. Maxwell’s lawyers could also pursue various appellate arguments with the trial judge, Judge Nathan, though those probably have zero chance of success and would probably only serve to delay the sentencing. At first glance, there does not appear to be many arguments displaying any probability of success.
A defendant of course does not have to testify at trial, as they are entitled to a presumption of innocence and the burden of proof is on the prosecution. Moreover, a defendant’s decision not to testify cannot be held against them, either. That being said… sometimes defendants simply cannot expect to win without testifying. Elizabeth Holmes, for example, elected to testify that she is not criminally responsible for the alleged fraud at Theranos because she was controlled and abused by her boyfriend, who also managed that doomed corporation. Though she may ultimately be convicted, Ms. Holmes almost certainly made the jury’s decision more difficult by testifying. It was somewhat surprising to see Ms. Maxwell decline to testify here, because she frankly had no chance of winning with the strategy she employed. Nobody wins by sitting silent while four complainants point the finger at you with similar stories of abuse. It’s just basically impossible in this #MeToo era. That’s how Cosby and Weinstein lost at trial, and how Cuba Gooding Jr. and Andrew Cuomo will likely be convicted someday, too.
Despite the defiant post-verdict language from her lawyers, Ms. Maxwell likely knew that she was going to lose at trial. Perhaps she chose not to testify because she hopes to one day sell her story to newspapers. After all, you cannot sell what you give away for free on the witness stand. It’s also likely that she did not testify so that she could be cooperating witness someday. This is where the matter becomes truly interesting going forward.
Though most government cooperators choose to “snitch” before trial, it is possible to become a government cooperator after a guilty plea or conviction at trial. Virtually every government cooperator agrees to cooperate in exchange for a lesser criminal penalty, or for a shorter prison sentence. To be a cooperator, though, a witness cannot normally have testified under oath that they had nothing to do with the criminal conspiracy at issue. After all, a government cooperator is typically expected to testify under oath against his or her co-conspirators, and the government cannot elicit testimony from a witness that contradicts prior sworn testimony. Interestingly, Ms. Maxwell is actually indicted – and remains to be tried – for making allegedly false statements about this matter under oath in a parallel civil proceeding. Those statements were relatively short and brief, however, so the government may be willing to overlook some minor prior perjury on her part, in exchange for truly juicy information. If Ms. Maxwell had testified under oath, though, she would have spent the better part of three days denying her involvement on the stand under withering cross-examination. After that, she would have been useless to the government as a witness against other unnamed co-conspirators because she could not possibly testify against her co-conspirators at a future prosecution of them. She would have destroyed her credibility as a government witness by that point.
So, it is quite possible that Ms. Maxwell and her lawyers deliberately withheld her testimony at trial so that she could still possibly cooperate with the government after a trial conviction. There have been more than a few rumors that President Trump, President Clinton, and Prince Andrew may have been involved in Jeffrey Epstein’s illegal abuse of minors. Given Mr. Epstein’s suspicious suicide at MCC New York, many people have been clamoring to know whether powerful people have been trying to hide the truth about Mr. Epstein’s systematic abuse of minors. Surely, the government would like to know whether Ms. Maxwell can confirm those rumors or provide any documentary proof as to their involvement. Perhaps Ms. Maxwell did not want to be perceived as a snitch or rat by participating with the government voluntarily pre-conviction. But now that she has been convicted at trial, she may acknowledge the futility of her continued resistance and offer the government her assistance in pursuing other prominent people. Maybe she is determined to be loyal to the memory of her dead friend, Jeffrey Epstein, but it would be a bit surprising if she would be willing to die in prison for him at this point.
The author of this article, Matthew Galluzzo, is a New York City criminal defense attorney specializing in federal criminal law. He is also a former Manhattan sex crimes prosecutor. His thoughts and opinions have been published many times in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, among other publications. He is also a regular television commentator for Radio Canada.