ALFRED, Maine — A legal battle about whether court interviews with potential jurors should be open to the public and media in the high-profile Kennebunk prostitution case went all the way up to the state Supreme Judicial Court on Thursday, bringing the case to a temporary standstill.
In the end, the state’s highest court agreed with an appeal filed by attorney Sigmund Schutz, representing the Portland Press Herald and parent company MaineToday Media, that Superior Court Justice Nancy Mills erred by blocking access to questioning of jury candidates.
As a result, remaining interviews with potential jurors — likely to take place Friday morning — will be open to the public and press, and transcripts of previously conducted interviews must be “appropriately redacted” and made available to the media.
On trial is Thomaston businessman Mark Strong, 57, who is accused of conspiring with fitness instructor Alexis Wright to run a prostitution business out of her Kennebunk Zumba studio. Both Strong and Wright, who faces her own trial in May, have pleaded not guilty to the charges.
Mills had defended her decision to keep the so-called voir dire juror interviews behind closed doors by saying she believed allowing the questioning to take place in public would restrict the attorneys’ ability to ask sensitive sexual questions and the potential jurors’ ability to answer frankly.
The judge said the sexual nature of the case and explicit evidence likely to be shown make it important to determine whether jury candidates have had sexual experiences that may bias them in the case.
“Probing questions and candid answers are necessary to ensure that the state of Maine and Mark Strong receive a fair and impartial trial,” Mills said Wednesday.
But in its ruling, the state’s high court said the York County Superior Court did not consider “reasonable alternatives” to closing the jury selection process, and added, “A generalized concern that juror candor might be reduced if voir dire is conducted in public is insufficient … to bar the public or media from the entirety of the process.”
Earlier in the day, Chief Justice Leigh Saufley had stopped jury selection in the Kennebunk prostitution case pending a decision by the full supreme court, which was released after 2 p.m.
At the York County Court House in Alfred, Mills suspended proceedings around 1 p.m. after Saufley’s ruling and excused the jury for the day.
She and lawyers for both parties in the case scheduled a 4:45 p.m. conference call to discuss the supreme court ruling.
The legal battle on the voir dire interviews likely pushes the jury selection process to a fourth day if the questioning resumes under the high court’s conditions, as expected Friday.
Mills had stated earlier in the week that the Strong case represents her first time in 19 years on the Superior Court that she was unable to seat a jury in a day or less, noting the complexity involved in a case with such intense media coverage.
The judge said 250 jury summonses were distributed in York County. Approximately 140 potential jurors came to the courthouse Tuesday, and after eight hours filling out questionnaires and sitting for individual interviews with the judge and attorneys in the case, 50 were released from duty that day.
The judge and attorneys must settle on a group of 12, plus as many as four alternates, who they feel have not been influenced by media coverage or know anyone involved in the sprawling case. In addition to nearly 70 individuals who have been charged with paying for sex in the case, law enforcement agencies at the local, county, state and federal level have been involved in the investigation.