Jury selection in Zumba prostitution case stretches into second day

Jury selection has started for The State of Maine v. Mark Strong trial at the York County Court House on Tuesday morning, Jan. 22, 2013, in Alfred. The case alleges that Strong was involved in a prostitution ring based in Kennebunk.
Jury selection has started for The State of Maine v. Mark Strong trial at the York County Court House on Tuesday morning, Jan. 22, 2013, in Alfred. The case alleges that Strong was involved in a prostitution ring based in Kennebunk. Buy Photo
Posted Jan. 22, 2013, at 9:31 a.m.
Last modified Jan. 22, 2013, at 7:42 p.m.

ALFRED, Maine — Jury selection will continue on to a second day in the trial of Mark Strong, a Thomaston businessman who is accused of conspiring with a Kennebunk fitness instructor to run a prostitution business.

Superior Court Justice Nancy Mills said she expects opening arguments in the trial to begin Wednesday after at least the morning is spent seating a jury of 12, with as many as four alternates.

The challenge facing attorneys in the case, according to a motion filed by defense attorney Daniel Lilley, will be finding jurors who haven’t been swayed by the intense media coverage of the scandal or who don’t know one of the dozens of individuals who have been charged with paying for sex in the sprawling case.

Jury selection Tuesday became a time-consuming process as potential jurors filled out lengthy questionnaires and sat for individual interviews with attorneys and the judge — in part to gauge their sexual histories and views on pornography, and whether those things would make them impartial in a trial which is expected to include heavy sexual content and even explicit images.

Mills said 250 jury summonses were distributed in York County, where Lilley has told the court his client can’t possibly receive a fair trial.

“[Strong] will be unduly prejudiced if he is forced to choose from a jury pool in York County that has been tainted not only by the media frenzy but also because of the likelihood that the jurors will know at least one person involved in the case personally,” Lilley wrote in a motion filed earlier this month to change the venue of the trial. That motion was denied.

Mills did not allow the public or media in the courtroom for the bulk of the jury selection process, citing capacity problems.

The courtroom holds 111, according to a previous court order, and 250 jury summonses were been distributed in York County — although not all who received summonses were able to attend.

Just after 9:30 a.m., more than 140 potential jurors were ushered into the second-floor courtroom and the door was closed behind them. They were led out of the courtroom and back downstairs again around a half-hour later.

At approximately 11 a.m., Lilley stepped out of the courtroom and briefly talked to reporters who had gathered in the hallway. He said he expects to begin presenting evidence in the case Wednesday and reiterated that he believes finding jurors who have not been influenced by media coverage or personal relationships with those involved in the case is important.

“The question is, can they be fair?” Lilley said. “[Jury selection] is a long, laborious process, most of which can’t be done in public.”

After the York County Courthouse’s regular 4:30 p.m. closing time, potential jurors were called back to the second-floor courtroom one final time for the day and about 50 were told they do not need to return Wednesday. The rest are obligated to be back at the courthouse by 9 a.m., when jury selection will continue.

Potential jurors on Tuesday filled out 10-page questionnaires which listed the individuals charged with engaging a prostitute in the case, as well as the other 72 people who will be called as witnesses in the trial, and asked the prospective jurors if they knew the people listed or anything about their cases.

Other questions in the document, copies of which were provided to the media by Mills, centered on potential jurors’ opinions about prostitution, pornography, religious beliefs and the legal system.

One question asked whether viewing pornographic material in the courtroom, which likely will be used as evidence in the case, would make it difficult for the respondent to render an impartial verdict. Another asked whether the respondent believes the state spends too much money prosecuting crimes, a question which draws to mind previous comments by Lilley that his client is at an unfair disadvantage defending himself against the state’s “unlimited resources.”

Because of what the questionnaire described as the “explicit sexual nature” of the allegations against Strong, many potential jurors were called into one-on-one interviews with the attorneys and judge in an effort to avoid forcing potential jurors to answer sensitive personal questions of a sexual nature in a room filled with more than 140 other people.

Lilley said after leaving the courthouse that he believes arguments in the trial will begin just after noon Wednesday.

Earlier this month, Mills denied Lilley’s motion to change the venue of the trial. Lilley’s argument that potential jurors from York County are more likely to be opinionated about the case was the same argument used, in part, to assign Mills, a Cumberland County Superior Court justice, to the case instead of a York County counterpart.

The trial is expected by some to go as long as three weeks.

Strong, 57, faces 59 counts — mostly charges of promotion of prostitution — in the high-profile case, in which he allegedly worked with fitness instructor Alexis Wright to set up a prostitution business out of her Kennebunk Zumba studio. Strong, who runs an insurance business, and Wright both have pleaded not guilty to the charges against them in their respective cases.

Wright faces a separate trial, scheduled to begin in May.

Mills has denied motions filed in recent weeks by Lilley to dismiss the charges, suppress evidence, delay the start of the trial until at least Feb. 19, and change the location of the trial. She also on Friday denied Lilley’s motion to withdraw from the case, saying Strong is not adequately trained to defend himself in the sprawling, complicated prostitution case.

Lilley had filed the motion to withdraw, in part, because he said Strong no longer has the financial resources to pay him nor to afford expert witnesses to testify on his behalf. The defense attorney told the court that Strong’s bank accounts are further taxed by a recent lawsuit brought against him and Wright by the landlord of the building where the fitness studio was, alleging that the pair owe back rent and property taxes.

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