ALFRED, Maine — The defense attorney representing a Thomaston businessman accused of conspiring to run a prostitution business out of a Kennebunk fitness studio told jurors Wednesday afternoon his client “may have made poor moral judgments, but the question is, did he commit a crime?”
Daniel Lilley, representing Mark Strong Sr., acknowledged during his opening statement in the high-profile case that his client had a relationship with accused prostitute Alexis Wright, but said prosecutors will not be able to prove he helped manage or organize the prostitution ring.
York County Deputy District Attorney Justina McGettigan had launched the highly anticipated trial Wednesday afternoon with the prosecution’s opening statement, telling jurors the state will provide emails, text messages, photographs and video proving Strong played a key role in the alleged Kennebunk prostitution business run by fitness instructor Wright out of her Zumba studio.
Strong faces 12 counts of promotion of prostitution and one count of conspiracy to promote prostitution. Wright faces her own separate trial scheduled to begin in May.
Lilley also hinted that he would pursue a long-expected argument that Strong was the target of police payback for an investigation he was doing into alleged misconduct at the Kennebunk Police Department.
“The evidence in this case will show that he did in fact have a relationship with a young woman by the name of Alexis Wright,” Lilley told the jury, seated just a few hours earlier after a four-day selection process. “The question is, did he promote prostitution, or did he fall in love and have an extramarital affair, and maybe help her start her [fitness] business … Is it a crime, or is it just bad judgment?”
He told the jury to watch for evidence that Strong directed customers toward the alleged prostitution business or that he earned money from the operation.
“Keep your eyes open. Look at the evidence, and see if you see any evidence where Mark Strong is making any money. Promoters, or pimps, usually make money when conducting this type of crime,” he said. “If [that evidence is] missing, your reasonable-doubt engine is starting to take some roll forward.”
Lilley directed jurors’ attention to a timeline written on a large sheet of paper, noting that police executed a search warrant on Wright’s Zumba studio and other properties on Feb. 14, 2012, but until grand jury indictments were revealed in October, the only one charged in the case was Strong, who initially was arrested on one count of promotion of prostitution in July.
Lilley suggested the lag in charges for everyone else allegedly involved in the operation is a sign that Strong was unfairly targeted by investigators.
While the defense attorney did not go into detail of the allegation Wednesday, he hinted that he plans to make a case that police had an “ulterior motive” to pursue Strong. In past public statements and court proceedings, Lilley has made it clear he will argue that Strong is the victim of police retaliation for his research into alleged misconduct at the Kennebunk Police Department, done in Strong’s capacity as a part-time private investigator.
The police have publicly denied Strong’s allegations in the months before the trial.
McGettigan delivered a less lengthy opening statement than her opponent, but told jurors that prosecutors will provide evidence proving Strong knew full well that prostitution was being conducted at the Zumba studio he helped get organized.
“You’ll … hear that, in addition to holding dance classes, Ms. Wright was engaging in prostitution,” McGettigan told the jurors. “And you will learn, we expect, that Mr. Strong played an active role in that engagement.”
McGettigan said Wright’s Kennebunk landlord will testify that he started receiving complaints about the business soon after it was established nearly three years ago, and that a nearby pizza parlor owner will testify that he saw men go into the dance studio at odd hours when it was not open.
“We expect you will see videotape from that location, and that videotape will show men engaging a prostitute,” McGettigan told jurors.
She said subsequent police investigations turned up emails, text messages and other communications and electronic evidence indicating Strong helped participate in the prostitution business by, among other things, running license plate numbers of the individuals allegedly paying for sex at Wright’s studio.
On Thursday, attorneys are scheduled to begin presenting evidence in the case, a process that may last two weeks or more and will include the questioning of nearly 70 witnesses — including 18 men who have pleaded guilty to paying for sex at the Zumba studio — and the playing of video of the alleged sex acts performed at the site.
The scandalous case has attracted global media attention, with a reported client list of more than 150 johns fueling rumors that prominent local politicians and television personalities were among those who paid for sex at the studio.