Maxwell judge asks jurors to meet daily to avoid mistrial amid COVID-19 surge

NEW YORK, Dec 28 (Reuters) - The judge in British socialite Ghislaine Maxwell's sex abuse trial on Tuesday asked jurors to meet every day this week, saying a change to the schedule could help avoid a mistrial caused by the rapid spread of the COVID-19 Omicron variant.

U.S. District Judge Alison Nathan said a positive COVID-19 case among jurors would "(put) at risk our ability to complete this trial."

Maxwell, 60, is accused of recruiting and grooming four teenage girls to have sexual encounters with the late financier Jeffrey Epstein between 1994 and 2004.

The trial had been scheduled to break on Thursday and Friday ahead of New Year's Eve, but, "Given the Omicron variant, I must require deliberations every day going forward until they reach a verdict," the judge told lawyers in the case before calling in the jury to dismiss them for the evening.

Over a three-week trial, jurors have heard emotional and explicit testimony from the four accusers, three of whom said Maxwell herself touched their nude bodies.

Jurors began deliberations on the afternoon of Dec. 20.

"Our deliberations are moving along and we are making progress," the jury told the judge in a note, which Nathan read aloud in court on Tuesday.

Nathan has not had to replace any of the 12 jurors.

If one juror were unable to continue serving, an alternate juror would be seated, and the jury would have to begin deliberations from scratch.

Five alternate jurors sat through the three-week trial, but have not been present for deliberations.

Maxwell, the daughter of late British media baron Robert Maxwell, has pleaded not guilty to six counts of sex trafficking and other crimes. Her lawyers argue prosecutors are treating her as a scapegoat for Epstein, who killed himself in 2019 in a Manhattan jail cell while awaiting trial on sex abuse charges.

Reporting by Luc Cohen in New York; Editing by Noeleen Walder and Alistair Bell

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Thomson Reuters

Reports on the New York federal courts. Previously worked as a correspondent in Venezuela and Argentina.