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Ghislaine Maxwell, the jet-setting socialite who once consorted with royals, presidents and billionaires, was sentenced to 20 years in prison Tuesday for helping the financier Jeffrey Epstein sexually abuse underage girls.

The stiff sentence was the punctuation mark on a trial that explored the sordid rituals of a predator power couple who courted the rich and famous as they lured vulnerable girls as young as 14, and then exploited them.

Prosecutors said Mr. Epstein, who died by suicide in 2019 while awaiting trial, sexually abused children hundreds of times over more than a decade and couldn’t have done so without the help of Ms. Maxwell, his long-time companion and one-time girlfriend, who they said sometimes also participated in the abuse. In December, a jury convicted Ms. Maxwell of sex trafficking, transporting a minor to participate in illegal sex acts and two conspiracy charges.

U.S. District Judge Alison J. Nathan, who also imposed a US$750,000 fine, said “a very significant sentence is necessary” and that she wanted to send an “unmistakable message” that these kinds of crimes would be punished. Prosecutors had asked the judge to give her 30 to 55 years in prison, while the 60-year-old Ms. Maxwell’s defence sought a lenient sentence of just five years.

Ms. Maxwell, wearing a blue prison uniform and a white mask to conform with coronavirus rules, looked to one side as the sentence was announced, but otherwise did not react.

“We will continue to live with the harm she caused us,” said Annie Farmer, one of the four accusers who testified against Ms. Maxwell at trial, inside the courtroom before the sentencing.

When she had a chance to speak, Ms. Maxwell said she empathized with the survivors and that it was her “greatest regret of my life that I ever met Jeffrey Epstein.” Ms. Maxwell called him “a manipulative, cunning and controlling man who lived a profoundly compartmentalized life,” echoing her defence attorneys’ assertions that Mr. Epstein was the true mastermind.

Ms. Maxwell, who denies abusing anyone, said she hoped that her conviction and her “unusual incarceration” bring some “measure of peace and finality.”

Justice Nathan refused to let Ms. Maxwell escape culpability, making clear that Ms. Maxwell was being punished for her own actions, not Mr. Epstein’s. She called the crimes “heinous and predatory” and said Ms. Maxwell, as a sophisticated adult woman, provided the veneer of safety as she “normalized” sexual abuse through her involvement, encouragement and instruction.

Several survivors described their sexual abuse, including Ms. Farmer, who said her sister and herself tried to go public with their stories about Mr. Epstein and Ms. Maxwell two decades ago, only to be shut down by the powerful couple through threats and influence with authorities.

Inside the crowded courtroom, three of Ms. Maxwell’s siblings sat in a row behind her. Most of the others in attendance were members of the media.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Alison Moe recounted how Ms. Maxwell subjected girls to “horrifying nightmares” by taking them to Mr. Epstein.

“They were partners in crime together and they molested these kids together,” she said, calling Ms. Maxwell “a person who was indifferent to the suffering of other human beings.”

Mr. Epstein and Ms. Maxwell’s associations with some of the world’s most famous people were not a prominent part of the trial, but mentions of friends like Bill Clinton, Donald Trump and Britain’s Prince Andrew showed how the pair exploited their connections to impress their prey.

Over the past 17 years, scores of women have accused Mr. Epstein of abusing them, with many describing Ms. Maxwell as the madam who recruited them. The trial, though, revolved around allegations from only a handful of those women.

Four testified that they were abused as teens in the 1990s and early 2000s at Epstein’s mansions in Florida, New York, New Mexico and the Virgin Islands.

Three were identified in court only by their first names or pseudonyms to protect their privacy: Jane, a television actress; Kate, an ex-model from the U.K.; and Carolyn, now a mom recovering from drug addiction. The fourth was Ms. Farmer, the sole accuser to identify herself in court by her real name, after speaking out publicly.

They described how Ms. Maxwell charmed them with conversation, gifts and promises that Mr. Epstein could use his wealth and connections to help fulfill their dreams.

Then, they testified, she led them to give massages to Mr. Epstein that turned sexual and played it off as normal.

Carolyn testified that she was one of several underprivileged teens who lived near Mr. Epstein’s Florida home in the early 2000s and took up an offer to massage him in exchange for US$100 bills in what prosecutors described as “a pyramid of abuse.”

Ms. Maxwell made all the arrangements, Carolyn told the jury, even though she knew the girl was only 14 at the time.

The allegations against Mr. Epstein first surfaced publicly in 2005. He pleaded guilty to sex charges in Florida and served 13 months in jail, much of it in a work-release program as part of a deal criticized as lenient. Afterward, he was required to register as a sex offender.

In the years that followed, many women sued Mr. Epstein over alleged abuse. One, Virginia Giuffre, claimed that Mr. Epstein and Ms. Maxwell had also pressured her into sexual trysts with other powerful men, including Prince Andrew. All of those men denied the allegations and Ms. Giuffre ultimately settled a lawsuit against Andrew out of court.

Federal prosecutors in New York revived the case against Mr. Epstein after stories by the Miami Herald in 2018 brought new attention to his crimes. He was arrested in 2019 and died by suicide a month later.

Eleven months after his death, Ms. Maxwell was arrested at a New Hampshire estate. A U.S., British and French citizen, she has remained in a federal jail in New York City since then as her lawyers repeatedly criticized her treatment, saying she was even unjustly placed under suicide watch days before sentencing. Prosecutors say the claims about the jail are exaggerated and that Ms. Maxwell has been treated better than other prisoners.

Before her fate was announced, Ms. Maxwell looked down and scribbled on a notepad as Sarah Ransome – an accuser whose allegations weren’t included in this trial – spoke of the lasting harm to her life, gazing directly at Ms. Maxwell several times.

Ms. Ransome, who twice tried to die by suicide, finally drew a look from Ms. Maxwell when she said: “You broke me in unfathomable ways but you did not break my spirit.”

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