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“She Is Not Jeffrey Epstein”: Meet the Lawyers Trying to Set Ghislaine Maxwell Free

A formidable legal team is trying to spin their client as a victim of the patriarchy. Epic trolling or effective strategy?

Ghislaine Maxwell’s trial started with a gasp. “Ever since Eve was tempting Adam with the apple, women have been blamed for the bad behavior of men, and women are often villainized and punished more than the men ever are,” Bobbi Sternheim, one of Maxwell’s lawyers, said to begin her opening statement. To the reporters gathered in the viewing room inside the Thurgood Marshall federal courthouse in Lower Manhattan, the biblical comparison played like a bit of epic trolling. But it turned out to be the opening salvo in a through-the-looking-glass strategy that aims to position Maxwell as a feminist “scapegoat” of the patriarchy. It was surely no accident that Maxwell wore a white sweater, heavy with suffragette symbolism, for day one of the trial.  

Maxwell’s legal team comprises four formidable defense lawyers, two of whom are women: Sternheim and Denver-based attorney Laura Menninger. Instead of attacking Maxwell’s accusers’ credibility head on, they have tried to focus more on the men in the case. “The charges against Ghislaine Maxwell are for things that Jeffrey Epstein did, but she is not Jeffrey Epstein, she is not like Jeffrey Epstein, and she is not like any of the other men, powerful men, moguls, media giants who abuse women,” Sternheim told the jury. Sternheim and Menninger have also gone after the accusers’ personal injury lawyers who, Sternheim said, manipulated their female clients into testifying against Maxwell in order to win a “big jackpot.” Sternheim and Menninger said that the Epstein Victims Compensation Fund pays accusers more money if they cooperate with the government’s investigation of Maxwell. Maxwell’s accusers received multimillion-dollar settlements, Sternheim told the jury.

Menninger has a methodical and reserved presence during cross-examination. In the first week of what is expected to be a six-week trial, she wielded questions like a scalpel to cut holes in the harrowing account of an anonymous victim known only as Jane, who alleged she was abused by Epstein and Maxwell starting in 1994 when she was 14. Jane repeated “I don’t recall” more than 20 times during one 10-minute stretch of questioning by Menninger. 

Sternheim, meanwhile, comes across as a brash, plainspoken New Yorker with upturned collars and thick plastic-frame glasses. In criminal defense circles, Sternheim is regarded as a pathbreaking feminist. “Bobbi is one of my heroes,” said defense attorney Cheryl Meyers Buth, who defended an alleged drug trafficker with Sternheim during a 2016 federal murder trial (Sternheim successfully convinced the judge to take the death penalty off the table, Meyers Buth said). “There’s not many women who do criminal defense work. She’s a legend.” 

Sternheim, who is 68, has represented many high-profile defendants charged with heinous crimes. In 2015, she defended al-Qaida member Khalid al-Fawwaz, who was charged with participating in the 1998 U.S Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania that killed 224 people. In 2016, she represented Minh Quang Pham, a member of al-Qaida’s Yemen affiliate who was accused of plotting to bomb Heathrow airport in London. Sternheim lost both cases (al-Fawwaz received life in prison; Pham got 40 years). But Meyers Buth said that’s not a reflection of Sternheim’s skill. “We have a saying in our business. Lawyers who talk about win-loss records aren’t trying the tough cases. Bobbi takes on the toughest cases. She’s fearless.”

Menninger had represented Maxwell in 2015 during a defamation case brought by Epstein accuser Virginia Roberts Giuffre (The case was settled in 2017). Like Sternheim, she has been unafraid to take on difficult or unpopular cases. In 2016, she defended then Colorado Avalanche goalie Semyon Varlamov in a lawsuit brought by an ex-girlfriend who alleged Varlamov viciously beat her after a 2013 Halloween party. Menninger was part of the defense team that successfully kept out of court a set of graphic pictures of injuries the ex-girlfriend allegedly suffered from Varlamov. The jury sided with Varlamov and ordered the ex-girlfriend to pay $126,000 in damages

It’s way too early to speculate about the outcome of the Maxwell case. Only one of four accusers has taken the stand. Next week will likely feature more sessions of gruesome testimony by Maxwell’s alleged victims. Having seen Sternheim and Menninger in action, prosecutors can make sure their witnesses are ready.

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