Jury picked for Kennebunk Zumba prostitution trial

Justice Nancy Mills presides over the Zumba case in York County Superior Court Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2013.
Shawn Patrick Ouellette | Pool/PPH
Justice Nancy Mills presides over the Zumba case in York County Superior Court Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2013.
Posted Feb. 20, 2013, at 9:55 a.m.
Last modified Feb. 20, 2013, at 1:09 p.m.

ALFRED, Maine — A jury of 10 men and six women has been chosen to decide the guilt or innocence of a Thomaston businessman accused of helping run a prostitution business out of a Kennebunk fitness studio.

On the fourth day of jury selection — a process that was delayed nearly four weeks after appeals — Superior Court Justice Nancy Mills and attorneys for both sides in the case settled on a group of 12 jurors and four alternates they believe could be impartial.

As a result, opening arguments in the case are expected to be made Wednesday afternoon.

On trial is Mark Strong Sr., who faces 13 counts of promotion of prostitution for his alleged role in the running of a prostitution business out of the Kennebunk Zumba studio of co-defendant Alexis Wright. Wright faces a separate trial scheduled to begin in May.

During the final morning questioning potential jurors Wednesday, the second-floor courtroom at the York County courthouse was filled with approximately 55 remaining jury candidates, narrowed from a pool of more than 140 when the process began on Jan. 22.

Of those 55, the judge and attorneys had a list of 23 front-runners to be whittled down to a group of 16 to decide the trial.

Potential jurors were asked to stand if they would answer “yes” to a series of questions agreed upon by the attorneys in the case and asked by Mills. Four of the jury candidates, who only were identified by numbers, stood when asked if they might have scheduling conflicts if the trial lasts until March 15, as attorneys expect it might, and 12 stood when asked if they had read, seen, heard or been told about any developments in the case since they were last in the courthouse more than three weeks ago.

“Walking by the TV — you can’t turn your ears off,” said one juror.

“My grandma knows I’m here, and she can’t stop talking about it,” said another.

When the judge asked if anyone in the jury pool felt that his or her ability to be impartial in the trial has been affected by anything read or heard during the previous few weeks, however, no one stood.

Mills told the jury candidates that, although they had been told nearly a month ago that Strong faced 59 charges, he now faces 13. She asked if the reduction in counts the defendant faces may sway potential jurors’ opinions of the case, but none stood. Likewise, no one stood when the judge asked if the long delay in the jury selection process — caused by a Jan. 25 prosecution appeal to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court opposing Mills’ dismissal of all 46 privacy invasion charges against Strong — would cause anyone in the pool to feel differently about the case.

The judge and attorneys then invited four jury candidates to the second-floor law library for individual interviews to ask additional questions outside of the group setting in the courtroom. Members of the media were allowed to sit in on the interviews, thanks to a Jan. 24 ruling by the state supreme court in favor of the Portland Press Herald and its parent group, MaineToday Media, which had challenged Mills’ previous decision to block public and media access to the jury selection process.

In the law library, one potential juror acknowledged working as a police officer in Kennebunk in the early 1970s, but said he knows nobody on the force now and does not believe he would favor the testimony of a police officer. Another, a Kennebunk landscaper, said one of his business clients had been charged as a john in the prostitution case and told attorneys he “strongly” believes prostitution should be legal.

The attorneys believed the former police officer could remain impartial, but both the prosecution and defense challenged the landscaper, and he was crossed off the list of potential jurors.

Just before noon, Mills informed those still in the pool that the clerk would read out 26 numbers, and the called jury candidates would be asked to stand. She then called off the numbers of the final 16 chosen after Mills conferred with attorneys.

The normally routine jury selection process has been anything but in the Strong case. Presiding Justice Nancy Mills said the effort represents the first time in 19 years in Superior Court she has failed to seat a jury in a day or less.

Mills said 250 jury summonses were distributed to York County residents, and more than 140 of those recipients showed up at the county courthouse on Jan. 22 to fill out questionnaires and sit for voir dire interviews with attorneys to determine whether they could be impartial in the trial.

For 2 ½ days of questioning, the interviews were held behind closed doors as Mills ruled that privacy would be necessary for attorneys to ask sensitive personal questions of the jury candidates. The trial is expected to feature heavy sexual content and illicit evidence, Mills reasoned, and potential jurors needed freedom from the public eye to answer questions about their sexual histories or views on pornography candidly.

Attorneys also sought to ensure that the jury candidates have not been influenced by the global media attention attracted by the prostitution scandal, nor have personal connections with any of the individuals involved in the sprawling case.

Law enforcement agencies at the local, county, state and federal levels played roles in the investigation, and nearly 70 people have been charged with paying for sex at the alleged prostitution business.

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