PORTLAND, Maine — The first major trial in the high-profile Kennebunk prostitution case may resume this week as Maine’s highest court announced Monday it will leave the decision to Superior Court Justice Nancy Mills on whether to proceed with 13 charges against Mark Strong that are not tied up in the appeals process.
As a result, Strong — a Thomaston businessman who is accused of running a prostitution operation alongside Kennebunk fitness instructor Alexis Wright — ultimately could stand trial twice. If Mills rules to split the charges, Strong could face an imminent trial on 13 counts of promotion of prostitution. Then, if the high court overturns the dismissal of the other 46 counts of privacy invasion against him, Strong will face a second trial to defend himself on that front.
However, Mills could decide not to split the cases and keep the current trial on hold until the law court decides whether the bulk of the charges should be thrown out. Mills is expected to hear the defense argument to sever the two groups of counts Tuesday at the York County courthouse in Alfred.
The supreme court announced Monday it won’t decide on how quickly it will issue a ruling on the appealed charges until Mills makes her decision on whether to split the cases.
Hanging in the balance are 46 of the 59 counts against Strong. Mills on Friday granted a motion by Strong’s attorneys to dismiss all 46 privacy invasion charges against him, a decision that prosecutors immediately appealed to the state’s highest court.
The Maine Supreme Judicial Court issued a procedural order on Monday to deny the defense’s motion to dismiss the prosecution appeal holding up the trial. But the high court ruled that Mills can decide whether to move forward with a trial on the 13 prostitution-related charges while the law court considers the 46 counts being disputed.
That means the trial of Mark Strong could return to court within days after a tumultuous jury selection process and two high court appeals brought progress to a halt by midday Friday.
Wright faces her own trial scheduled for May.
Friday’s prosecution appeal was the second time in two days that a pretrial ruling in the case was challenged before the Maine Supreme Judicial Court. On Thursday, the Portland Press Herald and parent company MaineToday Media won a high court appeal of Mills’ decision to keep interviews with potential jurors closed to the public and media.
It was a tumultuous pretrial week in the case, with jury selection moving in fits and starts for four days before being put on hold entirely with Friday’s appeal.
Mills said it was the first time in 19 years on the Superior Court that she wasn’t able to seat a jury in a day or less.
The judge and attorneys in the case struggled to find 12 jurors — and as many as four alternates — who didn’t know anyone involved in the sprawling case or who weren’t influenced by the intense global media coverage.
Law enforcement agencies at the local, county, state and federal level have been involved in the investigation, and nearly 70 individuals have been charged with paying for sex at Wright’s Zumba studio. More than 70 people are lined up to testify as witnesses in the trial, including 18 men convicted as johns.
For the first three days of jury selection, the process was closed to the public and press in part to allow attorneys to ask sensitive personal questions of the jury candidates to ensure whether they could be impartial in a case dealing with sexual content and explicit evidence.
The voir dire interviews with potential jurors would have been opened to the public on Friday after the Press Herald’s successful high court appeal, but jury selection was stopped again while the York County district attorney’s office and state attorney general sent the case back up to the supreme court to deal with the dismissal of charges.
Strong’s attorney, Daniel Lilley, filed a motion to get the 46 privacy invasion charges thrown out based on the argument that the johns could not legally expect privacy while at a fitness studio or business office, or while in the act of committing a crime — in this case, the crime of engaging a prostitute. The invasion of privacy charges are tied to the fact that the alleged sexual interactions between Wright and the johns, many of which allegedly took place in the above locations, were videotaped without the johns knowing.
Lilley argued before the court that protecting the privacy of johns in the illegal act of engaging a prostitute is akin to allowing a drug dealer to claim privacy infringement if caught on film dealing drugs while inside an apartment.
Prosecutors countered that an individual committing a crime is not exempt from simultaneously being a victim of another crime, pointing out that they would prosecute someone for shooting the same hypothetical drug dealer even though the drug dealer may have been selling narcotics at the time of the shooting.
Mills ruled in favor of the defense, dropping the majority of the charges, and the prosecution appealed, placing the trial in the hands of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, where it remains.
Lilley asked Mills to allow the trial to continue on the 13 remaining counts of promotion of prostitution, but Mills on Friday said she would put the whole trial on hold while waiting for word from the high court. On Monday, the supreme court turned back to Mills the question of whether to split the charges and proceed with the prostitution-related counts while the privacy-related counts were in limbo.