ALFRED, Maine — Superior Court Justice Joyce Wheeler has recused herself from a case against a Thomaston businessman accused of promoting prostitution, though she said she did so for reasons other than the ones prosecutors and the defense attorney raised earlier this month.
Daniel Lilley, who is defending Mark W. Strong Sr. in the case, said he received an order announcing the change on Friday from York County Superior Court. Mary Ann Lynch, government and media counsel for the administrative office of the Maine Judicial Branch, confirmed Friday that Wheeler has recused herself from the case.
Lilley said the order was brief, and dictated it over the phone to the Bangor Daily News Friday evening: “Regrettably and appropriately I now must disqualify myself from presiding in this case for reasons other than the grounds on which the defendant previously sought to recuse the undersigned judge,” reads the order, according to Lilley.
On Sept. 14, both Lilley and Deputy District Attorney Justina McGettigan asked Wheeler to remove herself from the case because a law clerk who works for judges in Cumberland County, including Wheeler, is married to an assistant attorney general who is involved in the prosecution. Wheeler, who was specially assigned to the case because judges in York County might know witnesses involved in the case — who could number more than 100 — denied Lilley’s and McGettigan’s requests.
Wheeler’s order, which was dated Thursday and circulated to Lilley on Friday, essentially says she has a reason for bowing out of the case other than the marital relationship between the law clerk and the prosecutor. According to Lynch, judges are not required to provide reasons for recusing themselves from cases and Lynch said she did not know why Wheeler had done so. Maine Superior Court Chief Justice Thomas E. Humphrey will appoint another judge to the case on Monday, said Lynch. The new judge will likely be from the superior court bench but it’s possible that a district court judge could be chosen, she said.
Lilley said he was surprised by Wheeler’s order.
“This is all out of the clear blue,” said Lilley. “Why she’s doing it, I guess we’re not going to know. Judges can do what they want, pretty much.”
Strong, 56, who is the owner of an insurance company, was arrested in July and charged with Class D promotion of prostitution, which could result in a maximum penalty of a year in jail. Strong has pleaded not guilty to the charge. Investigators have said that Strong has a significant business and personal connection with a woman who runs a Zumba dance studio in Kennebunk, who police allege was involved in prostitution. Neither that woman nor anyone else other than Strong has been charged in connection with the case.
Lilley moved earlier this month to have the case against his client dismissed because prosecutors had not yet shared evidence with him. Wheeler denied his request and ordered the district attorney’s office and attorney general’s office to turn over the information as soon as possible. Lilley said Friday that he is still awaiting evidence in the case, though he said he received some of it Friday. The case could go to trial as early as next month.
“I’m concerned because my client is charged with promoting prostitution,” said Lilley. “I have no prostitute, I have no Johns and now I have no judge. I’d like to have a speedy trial here and clear my client’s name.”
Lilley said he would likely motion for a dismissal again, but needs all the evidence and information in the case before he can do so or prepare his defense.