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Ghislaine Maxwell’s Unusual Request: Allow Anonymous Defense Witnesses

Three accusers who testified against Ghislaine Maxwell in the first two weeks of her sex-trafficking trial in Manhattan were allowed to shield their identities to protect their privacy in the public courtroom. Two, “Jane” and “Kate,” used pseudonyms, while a third, “Carolyn,” used only her first name.

Now, three of the defense’s witnesses have also asked to testify without revealing their identities, Ms. Maxwell’s lawyers say.

The unusual request, which prosecutors oppose, according to a letter to the judge from one of Ms. Maxwell’s attorneys, Bobbi C. Sternheim, came as Ms. Maxwell’s defense team prepared to present its case in the closely watched trial. Ms. Maxwell is accused of helping Jeffrey Epstein recruit, groom and in some cases sexually abuse underage girls. She has pleaded not guilty.

The government rested its case against Ms. Maxwell on Friday after two weeks of testimony from four accusers (one of whom testified under her true name) and former employees of Mr. Epstein and other witnesses.

It is not yet clear what sort of defense Ms. Maxwell’s lawyers might mount or whether she might testify in her own defense, but in the letter to Judge Alison J. Nathan, Ms. Sternheim suggested that some potential defense witnesses might not be willing to testify if they had to do so using their real names.

“The court’s ruling on this issue may impact the willingness of these witnesses to testify,” Ms. Sternheim wrote on Sunday, “thereby compromising Ms. Maxwell’s right to present her defense.”

It is not unheard of for prosecutors to seek anonymity for witnesses in cases like Ms. Maxwell’s, which involve alleged sexual assault victims, or in trials with testimony from undercover officers or agents or vulnerable informants.

But legal experts interviewed on Monday said they were not aware of trials in which defense witnesses had appeared under a pseudonym or a partial name, as Ms. Maxwell’s witnesses are requesting to do.

Ms. Sternheim’s letter did not identify the three witnesses or explain why they were requesting anonymity.

The three were among 35 witness names the defense provided to the government — but did not release publicly — on Friday evening, according to a government court filing on Sunday. On Friday, another of Ms. Maxwell’s lawyers said in court that the defense was paring its witness list, given that the prosecution had rested its case earlier than expected and had not called “a significant number of witnesses.”

“We have a larger list that we’ve needed to winnow down,” the lawyer, Jeffrey S. Pagliuca, said.

Ms. Maxwell’s trial is moving much more quickly than expected. Before the trial began, the prosecution estimated in court papers that it would rest within four weeks, but that it could rest as early as the third week. On Friday, the prosecution rested after a presentation of only two weeks.

Mr. Pagliuca told the judge on Friday that the defense case would last no longer than four days and was likely to be even shorter — underscoring that many of the witnesses on its list will not be called to testify.

He did not address whether Ms. Maxwell would testify, but his estimate that the defense would need less than a week for its presentation suggested that she would not take the stand.

The defense request for privacy for witnesses surfaced in court on Friday, when another of Ms. Maxwell’s lawyers, Christian R. Everdell, cited the need for anonymity because of the publicity surrounding Ms. Maxwell’s case.

“We are already getting what I think are valid requests that these witnesses testify anonymously or under some sort of protection, name protection,” Mr. Everdell said.

Noting the protections that the prosecution’s witnesses had received, he added, “People who are testifying here might get a lot of unwanted attention, especially if they are testifying on behalf of Ms. Maxwell.”

Rebecca Roiphe, a professor at New York Law School and a former assistant district attorney in Manhattan, said she did not believe Judge Nathan would grant a defense request for anonymity even in a high-profile case without a showing of exceptional circumstances.

“There are lots of cases where witnesses would prefer not to be entangled in something,” she said, “and I just don’t think that that’s an adequate reason for anonymity.”

“It has to be something more,” she added, like a legitimate fear of retribution or a witness who was an underage victim of a crime.

Daniel C. Richman, a former assistant U.S. attorney in Manhattan who now teaches at Columbia Law School, said the defense might be seeking to level the playing field before the jury, “to send the message that, yeah, we know the government needed to put on some witnesses anonymously, but we got the same thing going on, too. It’s really no big deal.”

On Friday, Judge Nathan told Ms. Maxwell’s lawyers to confer with the government on the issue. She said that in affording privacy to the three accusers, she had broken no new ground legally — “that’s well-tread territory,” she said.

But she cautioned that even if the parties reached an agreement, she would need more before she approved any such grant of anonymity to defense witnesses.

“Even if there’s agreement,” she said, “I would look for authority to make sure that it’s permissible.”

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