(NEW YORK) -- Ghislaine Maxwell, the associate of Jeffrey Epstein who lured underage girls into the disgraced financier's lurid world, was sentenced Tuesday to 20 years in federal prison and a $750,000 fine following her December conviction on five criminal counts, including sex trafficking.
Maxwell addressed the court for five minutes and said she empathized with the victims, but she didn't take responsibility for causing their suffering.
As Maxwell spoke, victims and accusers smirked and raised their eyebrows. At least two broke into tears.
One accuser said seeing Maxwell in ankle chains brought her comfort and felt appropriate.
Maxwell said the statements from victims and accusers were "terribly difficult to hear," and that it was "difficult to absorb the scale and extent" of their experiences.
To the victims, Maxwell said, "I am sorry for the pain that you experienced," adding, "I hope my conviction and harsh incarceration" brings some closure.
"It is my sincerest wish to all those in this courtroom ... that this day brings this terrible chapter to an end," she said.
Maxwell also said, "It is the greatest regret of my life that I ever met Jeffrey Epstein."
She called Epstein a "manipulative man" who was "cunning," "controlling" and "fooled all of those in his orbit."
Maxwell, 60, and Epstein, who died by suicide in jail, "were partners in crime who sexually exploited young girls together," said New York City federal prosecutors, who had asked the judge for a sentence of at least 30 years in prison.
Prosecutors said Maxwell and Epstein selected their victims carefully and asserted that it was no accident the four accusers who testified -- "Jane," "Kate," Carolyn and Annie -- came from single-mother households. The victims were isolated and plied with gifts, flattery, and promises of career help in what federal prosecutor Alison Moe described as a pattern of grooming and abuse.
"Ghislaine Maxwell played an instrumental role in the horrific sexual abuse of multiple young teenage girls," prosecutors wrote in a sentencing memorandum. "As part of a disturbing agreement with Jeffrey Epstein, Maxwell identified, groomed, and abused multiple victims, while she enjoyed a life of extraordinary luxury and privilege."
Judge Alison Nathan on Tuesday called Maxwell's conduct "heinous and predatory" and said, "the damage done to these young girls in incalculable."
"A very serious and very significant sentence is necessary," Nathan said.
Nathan took note of Maxwell’s acknowledgment of the courage of the victims and the impact the crimes had on them, saying, "I think that’s important for the victims to hear/"
But Nathan also noted what wasn’t expressed by Maxwell: "An acceptance of responsibility."
In a statement Tuesday, U.S. Attorney Damian Williams said the sentence holds her "accountable for perpetrating heinous crimes against children."
"This sentence sends a strong message that no one is above the law and it is never too late for justice," Williams said. "We again express our gratitude to Epstein and Maxwell’s victims for their courage in coming forward, in testifying at trial, and in sharing their stories as part of today’s sentencing.”
Maxwell's lawyer said Sunday that she had been placed on suicide watch while awaiting sentencing at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn -- even though her attorneys had told the court she was not suicidal and that outside psychologists agreed with that assessment.
Maxwell, who maintains her innocence, accused the government of treating her "as if she were a proxy" for Epstein and asked the judge to impose a sentence well below the maximum 55 years.
"The witnesses at trial testified about Ms. Maxwell's facilitation of Epstein's abuse, but Epstein was always the central figure: Epstein was the mastermind, Epstein was the principal abuser, and Epstein orchestrated the crimes for his personal gratification," defense attorneys said in their sentencing memorandum. "Indeed, had Ghislaine Maxwell never had the profound misfortune of meeting Jeffrey Epstein over 30 years ago, she would not be here."
The defense also suggested Maxwell was susceptible to Epstein's influence in part because of her relationship with her father, the late British publishing magnate Robert Maxwell, who the defense said verbally and physically abused her.
"Ghislaine vividly recalls a time when, at age 13, she tacked a poster of a pony on the newly painted wall of her bedroom. Rather than mar the paint with tape, she carefully hammered a thin tack to mount the poster," the defense memo said. "This outraged her father, who took the hammer and banged on Ghislaine's dominant hand, leaving it severely bruised and painful for weeks to come."
Prosecutors called Maxwell's efforts to deflect blame "absurd."
"If anything stands out from the defendant's sentencing submission, it is her complete failure to address her offensive conduct and her utter lack of remorse," federal prosecutors said in their memo to the judge. "Instead of showing even a hint of acceptance of responsibility, the defendant makes a desperate attempt to cast blame wherever else she can."
Maxwell's defense insisted at trial that the government's case relied on the "erroneous memories" of four accusers who defense attorney Laura Menninger said "inserted" Maxwell into accounts that initially included only Epstein.
"The accusers' memories ... started to shift," Menninger said. "The truth was manipulated and changed over time."
The defense also argued that money brought the accusers forward "with their personal injury lawyers right there next to them." Menninger said each accuser took home millions, "and now they are stuck with the stories they told."
Prosecutors, whose case included two dozen witnesses, said Maxwell "made the choice to sexually exploit numerous underage girls" as part of a scheme that ran from at least 1994 to 2004. Two women who testified said they were 14 when Epstein began to abuse them, sometimes with Maxwell present or directly involved.
"She personally engaged in sexual abuse when she fondled the breasts of Jane, Annie, and Carolyn. And she used her role as a supposedly respectable, glamorous, older woman to lure these victims into a false sense of security," prosecutors said.
Defense attorney Bobbi Sternheim said Maxwell intends to appeal her conviction.
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