British socialite Maxwell, 60, was convicted in December of sex trafficking, transporting a minor to participate in illegal sex acts and two conspiracy charges.
Ghislaine Maxwell, the jet-setting socialite who once consorted with royals, presidents and billionaires, was sentenced to 20 years in prison for helping financier Jeffrey Epstein sexually abuse underage girls.
"A substantial sentence will send an unmistakable message that those who engage in the sexual abuse and trafficking of underage victims will be held accountable by the law," US District Judge Alison J. Nathan said during the reading of the sentence.
"The rule of law demands, and this court agrees, that whether you are rich or powerful or entirely unknown, nobody is above the law."
In December, a jury convicted Maxwell of sex trafficking, transporting a minor to participate in illegal sex acts and two conspiracy charges.
"Maxwell's conduct was shockingly predatory. She was a calculating, sophisticated, and dangerous criminal who preyed on vulnerable young girls and groomed them for sexual abuse," prosecutors wrote in a court filing.
Maxwell denies abusing anyone.
Earlier on Tuesday, she was brought into a New York courtroom in a prison uniform and with her ankles shackled to await her sentence.
The sentence is roughly half of the 30- to 55-year term sought by federal prosecutors. Defence attorneys want a five-year term for the Briton.
'I've prayed for this moment for so long'
The sentencing in New York is the culmination of a prosecution that detailed how the power couple flaunted their riches and prominent connections to lure vulnerable girls as young as 14, and then exploit them.
The hearing was so long that Nathan called for a half-hour lunch break, unusual for such proceedings.
The first up to speak were five women who say they were sexually abused by Epstein with Maxwell's help, followed by Maxwell herself.
Annie Farmer, who identified herself in court by her real name after speaking out publicly, said in her statement that "For a long time, I wanted to erase from my mind the crimes that Ghislaine Maxwell and Jeffrey Epstein committed against me and pretend they hadn’t happened."
Farmer asked the judge to take into account the "systemic effects of the crimes she perpetrated" as well as the fact that never admitted to her role in the abuse.
"Given the shame and self-doubt that these injuries had already caused, this all felt like a retraumatisation—one that could have been easily avoided had she told the truth," Farmer said.
Maxwell, wearing a blue prison uniform and a white mask to conform with coronavirus rules, sat quietly through the first hour of the sentencing hearing as lawyers debated the law.
Several women who testified against Maxwell or released statements prior to sentencing also were in court.
Prosecutors said Epstein, who killed himself 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 Maxwell, his longtime companion and onetime girlfriend.
Maxwell's defence team placed the blame on Epstein instead.
"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," defence attorneys wrote in a court filing.
Celebrity connections exploited to impress victims
Epstein and 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 Epstein of abusing them. Many described Maxwell as acting as a madam who recruited them to give massages to Epstein.
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 UK, and Carolyn, now a mom recovering from drug addiction. Farmer was the fourth.
They described how Maxwell charmed them with conversation and gifts and promises that Epstein could use his wealth and connections to help fulfil their dreams.
Then, they testified, she led them to give massages to Epstein that turned sexual and played it off as normal.
Carolyn testified that she was one of several underprivileged teens who lived near Epstein's Florida home in the early 2000s and took up an offer to massage him in exchange for $100 bills in what prosecutors described as "a pyramid of abuse."
Maxwell made all the arrangements, Carolyn told the jury, even though she knew the girl was only 14 at the time.
Men accused of being part of abuse deny involvement
The allegations against 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. Afterwards, he was required to register as a sex offender.
In the years that followed, many women sued Epstein over alleged abuse. One, Virginia Giuffre, claimed that Epstein and Maxwell had also pressured her into sexual trysts with other powerful men, including Prince Andrew.
All of those men denied the allegations and Giuffre ultimately settled a lawsuit against Andrew out of court.
Federal prosecutors in New York revived the case against Epstein after stories by the Miami Herald in 2018 brought new attention to his crimes. He was arrested in 2019 but killed himself a month later.
Eleven months after his death, 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 criticize 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 Maxwell has been treated better than other prisoners.
Her lawyers also fought to have her conviction tossed on the grounds of juror misconduct. Days after the verdict, one juror gave media interviews in which he disclosed he had been sexually abused as a child — something he hadn't told the court during jury selection.
Maxwell's lawyers said she deserved a new trial. A judge disagreed.
At least eight women submitted letters to the judge, describing the sexual abuse they said they endured for having met Maxwell and Epstein.
'Shifting of blame absurd'
In letters to the judge, six of Maxwell's seven living siblings pleaded for leniency. Maxwell's fellow inmate also submitted a letter describing how Maxwell has helped to educate other inmates over the last two years.
Anne Holve and Philip Maxwell, her eldest siblings, wrote that her relationship with Epstein began soon after the 1991 death of their father, the British newspaper magnate Robert Maxwell.
They said Robert Maxwell had subjected his daughter to "frequent rapid mood swings, huge rages and rejections."
"This led her to becoming very vulnerable to abusive and powerful men who would be able to take advantage of her innate good nature," they wrote.
Prosecutors called Maxwell's shifting of blame to Epstein "absurd and offensive."
"Maxwell was an adult who made her own choices," they wrote to the court. "She made the choice to sexually exploit numerous underage girls."
"She made the choice to conspire with Epstein for years, working as partners in crime and causing devastating harm to vulnerable victims. She should be held accountable for her disturbing role in an extensive child exploitation scheme."