Defense in Kennebunk Zumba prostitution trial: Strong cared for Wright, tried to help her; case goes to jury Wednesday
ALFRED, Maine — Defense attorneys told jurors in the high-profile Kennebunk prostitution case that Mark Strong Sr. cared about accused prostitute Alexis Wright and aided her in the same nurturing way a mother would continue providing food and shelter for a son she knew was dealing drugs.
Prosecutors told jurors, however, that there is too much evidence tying Strong to Wright and her alleged pay-for-sex activities to believe the Thomaston businessman did nothing more than have an affair.
Closing statements began in the trial of Strong, who is accused of conspiring with Wright to run a prostitution business out of her Kennebunk Zumba studio, on Tuesday afternoon. The jury is scheduled to begin deliberations on the case Wednesday morning.
Strong faces 12 counts of promotion of prostitution and one count of conspiracy to promote prostitution for his alleged role in the pay-for-sex scheme. Wright faces a separate trial on 106 counts — including prostitution, privacy invasion and tax evasion — scheduled to begin later this spring.
“Why would my client, with his background, want to promote prostitution?” defense attorney Daniel Lilley told the jury Tuesday. “You have to ask that ‘why’ question. She says he’s a business partner. A business partner without making any money?”
Deputy District Attorney Justina McGettigan was the first to offer a closing argument in the case.
McGettigan in her closing statement reminded jurors about evidence her team introduced in the case. She referenced video footage the jury saw of Wright having sex with a man in exchange for $250, and recalled the explicit screenshots from those videos appearing more than two hours away on computers found at Strong’s Thomaston properties.
Prosecutors have argued Strong watched Wright’s alleged appointments with johns remotely using a hidden camera and the Internet videoconferencing program Skype.
The deputy district attorney then read the content of several text messages and emails the jury was given printouts of during the trial. Those texts and emails included daily Internet calendars documenting her encounters with alleged johns, as well as detailed ledgers with the clients’ names, appointment times, “services” rendered and the amounts she charged.
McGettigan read responses by Strong in which he commented on the ledgers and bookkeeping.
Lilley has argued that Strong just had an extramarital affair with Wright and helped her set up her fledgling Zumba business by co-signing for her lease, among other things. But the top prosecutor in the case said the detailed involvement indicated by correspondences between Wright and Strong prove he wasn’t a “disinterested” party in the prostitution operation.
“Why is she sending [the calendars and ledgers] to him?” McGettigan posed during her closing argument. “Not because he’s having an affair with him. Not because he just likes watching her have sex. It’s because he’s a business partner. He wants to know who the clients are, when she’s meeting them, what they’re doing and how much she’s getting paid.”
The deputy district attorney read off a list of texts from Wright to Strong sent when she was allegedly scheduled to meet a client, but when she was unable to find the Thomaston man online.
“I won’t see a client without your permission and viewing,” Wright allegedly texted to Strong, according to McGettigan.
“She’s a commodity, he’s controlling her and she knows he’s controlling her,” McGettigan told the jury.
But in his subsequent closing argument, Lilley cast the texts and emails exchanged between Wright and Strong in a different light.
“In order to find my client guilty of anything, you have to believe that with what [McGettigan] said and what you’ve seen here, you can reach only one possible conclusion — crime,” Lilley said. “If you look at those emails, you’re going to see things like, ‘love’ and ‘concern’ and ‘I want to do this for you’ and ‘I’m trying to help you.’ Although he helped her, and even if he looked at her having sex … that’s not a crime.”
Lilley likened Strong’s relationship with Wright to a mother desperately trying to help a drug-dealing son by loaning him money and giving him resources.
“If he’s trying to help her for the sake of helping her, that’s not promotion of prostitution,” Lilley told jurors. “It may result in promotion of prostitution, but it is not itself promotion of prostitution.”
The defense attorney also reiterated arguments his team has made throughout the trial that Strong was charged in the prostitution case as police retaliation for research he was doing into past misconduct by members of the Kennebunk Police Department.
Lilley has argued throughout the case that Strong was investigating the town police, most significantly the department’s top investigator in the case, when he was searched and arrested in July 2012. The defense attorney reminded jurors about notes Kennebunk police Patrol Officer Audra Presby found at Strong’s insurance agency referring to her and other members of the department, as well as a 2009 affair she had with a married supervisor, among other incidents of alleged misconduct.
“There’s another side to this story,” Lilley told the jury. “There are motivations here that just aren’t explainable. … It isn’t that we’re trying to slander Ms. Presby, or that we’re trying to slander the chief. But if you look at his notes, he was on to something that had to be embarrassing.”
But McGettigan in her brief day-ending rebuttal statement said that jurors should not “fall for the diversion” of Lilley’s police retaliation argument. She said the investigation included Maine State Police detectives as well as other state and federal agencies, not just the Kennebunk police.
“You’d have to find that there’s a crazy conspiracy between all these agencies just to get Mark Strong,” McGettigan said. “[You’d have to] ignore the 13,000 screenshots, ignore the 20,000 communications by phone, ignore the thousands of emails, and say, ‘It’s just a crazy conspiracy.’”
Lilley also told jurors that, even if they believe Strong is guilty of promotion of prostitution, they should find him guilty on only one of the counts. Strong’s attorney noted that the first count claims the criminal activity took place between Oct. 1, 2010, and Feb. 13, 2012, while 11 other counts of promotion of prostitution include periods within those dates.
“He either promoted prostitution for the entire time frame they include in count one, or he didn’t,” Lilley told jurors. “You can’t double up or triple up and say every time he thinks about it or talks to her [within the time frame cited in the first count] it’s an additional charge.”
McGettigan objected to Lilley’s comments on multiple occasions during his closing statement, largely when he attempted to bring up 46 privacy invasion charges initially brought against Strong that were then dropped.
The prosecution closed its case Monday without calling any of the 18 men originally included on its witness list to testify. Instead, both sides agreed to a stipulation, to be read to the jury, that the men did indeed pay Wright for sex, but that none of them had ever seen or interacted with Strong.
The potentially rapid conclusion to the trial this week stands in contrast with the trial’s labored prologue, in which jury selection took four days stretched out over more than four weeks, and pretrial motions were on two occasions appealed to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.
Witnesses in the trial so far have included embattled Kennebunk police Patrol Officer Audra Presby, whose past affair with a supervisor was among the incidents Strong was allegedly researching at the time of his arrest, and Kennebunk pizza parlor manager Dan Racaniella, who testified that Wright dropped her towel and apparently attempted to seduce him one night during home delivery of a spaghetti and meatballs meal.
Earlier in the day Tuesday, Superior Court Justice Nancy Mills denied late defense motions to dismiss 12 prostitution promotion counts and to acquit Strong entirely, respectively, which would have rendered jury deliberations essentially moot.