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Defense: Sexual images in Kennebunk Zumba prostitution case would ‘horrify’ jury

Shawn Patrick Ouellette | Portland Press Herald
Shawn Patrick Ouellette | Portland Press Herald
Defendant Mark Strong Sr., right, talks with his attorney Daniel Lilley after a hearing Tuesday morning, Feb. 19, 2013, in York County Superior Court.
By Seth Koenig, BDN Staff

ALFRED, Maine — Defense attorneys in the first of two major trials in the high-profile Kennebunk prostitution case tried to prevent the introduction in court of images allegedly found on Mark Strong Sr.’s computers, concerned that the sex acts depicted would “horrify” jurors and turn them against their client.

The judge overseeing the trial suggested the images likely will be allowed, but before the jury has a chance to view them, Superior Court Justice Nancy Mills is expected to take up a defense motion Tuesday to dismiss all remaining charges in the case.

Strong, a Thomaston insurance broker and part-time private investigator, faces 12 counts of promotion of prostitution and one count of conspiracy to promote prostitution in connection with the accusation that he helped Kennebunk fitness instructor Alexis Wright run a prostitution business out of her Zumba studio. Wright faces a separate trial scheduled to begin later this spring.

Prosecutors from the York County district attorney’s office said the introduction of the pictures, allegedly of Wright engaging in sexual acts with various men taken through a popular videoconferencing program called Skype, is necessary to prove Strong oversaw the alleged prostitution.

But Daniel Lilley, representing Strong, argued the pictures only suggest his client may be a “voyeur” — and since 46 privacy invasion charges against Strong have already been dismissed by Superior Court Justice Nancy Mills, the defense attorney said showing the images would be irrelevant to the remaining prostitution promotion charges.

“At its worst, it may show Mr. Strong observed sexual acts between Ms. Wright and other people, but I think it stops short of promotion of prostitution,” Lilley argued to Mills during a brief afternoon hearing for which the jury was not present.

Lilley objected to the introduction of what he called the “extremely sexual” images.

“I think some of this stuff is going to horrify people to a point where he won’t possibly get a fair trial,” Strong’s attorney said.

Mills agreed that the introduction of too many such images — defense attorneys said the prosecution had 577 pictures ready for admission as evidence — could prejudice the jury and be time-consuming. But she also agreed that the pictures, as well as associated videos also allegedly found on Strong’s computers, would be important for the prosecution’s case.

“The state has to prove that Mark Strong was actively involved in the prostitution [business],” Deputy District Attorney Justina McGettigan told Mills. “Part of that active involvement was that he was monitoring the prostitution from his Thomaston location through Skype.”

McGettigan recalled testimony delivered last week in which the landlord for the building where Wright’s dance studio was situated telling the court that Strong shared the lease for the space. She told Mills Monday the state’s promotion of prostitution charge includes providing and controlling a location where prostitution takes place.

The debate on the images came during the testimony of Saco Police Detective Frederick Williams, who analyzed images discovered on Strong’s computers by members of the state computer crimes task force. McGettigan sought to introduce some of those images as evidence in the trial before Lilley’s objection, which ultimately motivated Mills to temporarily dismiss the jury while she and the attorneys discussed their admissibility.

Mills told the attorneys that on Tuesday morning, the jury would be told to report to the York County courthouse later than usual so that she could officially sign off on the images the prosecution plans to introduce as evidence. The judge also said she would consider an outstanding defense motion to dismiss all charges.

During the weeks leading into the trial, Mills denied a previous defense motion to throw out all the charges, but later granted a Strong motion to dismiss the 46 privacy invasion counts against him. That second decision was appealed to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court by prosecutors and upheld.

In Lilley’s latest motion to strike the charges and put an end to the trial, he cites continued complaints about the exchange of evidence in the case. On Thursday, McGettigan announced that she received word from a lawyer representing the Kennebunk Police Department that personnel files for officers are regularly purged in accordance with a union contract provision, and that a written reprimand for a top investigator Lilley hoped to call into question is no longer in that officer’s record.

Mills scolded prosecutors and town lawyers about the late hour of the announcement, coming less than two hours before the officer in question was scheduled to testify.

Central to the defense case is the argument that Strong is the target of police retaliation for research he was doing into alleged misconduct by members of the Kennebunk Police Department, specifically Officer Audra Presby, who led the local investigation and was part of the team which executed a search warrant at Strong’s insurance agency.

Kennebunk police Lt. Anthony Bean Burpee stated in an October news release that Presby received a written reprimand for a 2009 affair she had with her married then-supervisor Nicholas Higgins, and that Higgins has since resigned, and that the incidents had no bearing on 2012’s prostitution investigation.

The scandalous case — in which as nearly 70 people have been charged as johns, including prominent men in the Greater Portland area — has attracted worldwide media attention.

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