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Expert says guilty verdict for Strong could help Wright in Kennebunk Zumba prostitution case; settlement talks slated

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Alexis S. Wright, 29, of Wells listens to her attorney, Sarah Churchill in Cumberland County Superior Court Tuesday Oct. 9, 2012 where she was arraigned on 106 criminal charges. Those include failure to pay taxes in 2009, 2010 and 2011 and engaging in prostitution, promotion of prostitution, violation of privacy with an inside device, conspiracy, unsworn falsification, evasion of income tax and felony theft.
By Jennifer Feals, York County Coast Star

ALFRED, Maine — While alleged co-conspirator Mark Strong’s conviction on 13 counts last week might be seen by some as a blow to accused prostitute Alexis Wright, a jury expert says exactly the opposite could be true.

The jury likely will take a different perspective in Wright’s trial than in Strong’s, said Philip Anthony, chief executive officer of Decision Quest, a trial consulting firm. It’s likely, he said, that the jury could feel the crime already has been punished through Strong.

“While they can’t let her off completely free because she was a part of it, they may be more of a mind to do something, to the extent they are able, much less stringent,” Anthony said. “That would be a typical pattern of jurors where multiple parties are tried. The jury is in a position to perceive that the ringleader has already been punished. Their mindset might be that this second person might not be the one who caused this whole thing.”

Wright, 30, of Wells is facing 106 counts of prostitution, invasion of privacy and tax-related offenses. The state says she ran a prostitution business out of both her Kennebunk Zumba studio and nearby office for a year and a half, raking in $150,000 while collecting public assistance.

The case has attracted attention worldwide, and photos of a scantily clad or nude Wright, along with online videos of her engaged in sex acts, have been widely viewed by both the population at large and jurors in the Strong trial.

Despite all of that, Anthony said he expects Wright will be positioned as a victim during her trial. This can be made even more believable by the fact that Wright lives locally, while Strong could be portrayed as an outsider from Thomaston, more than two hours away, he said.

“It will allow some jurors to think in terms of the other guy, the bad apple who organized this whole thing,” Anthony said. “You would expect her attorney to position her as a victim of the whole thing who made some bad judgments but nonetheless wasn’t the ringleader. But a victim like everyone else in the community. It would be more unusual for them to hit her as hard as they hit the fellow who organized the whole thing. Although certainly possible, not likely.”

Whether Wright will make it to trial is still up in the air, though.

Her attorney, Sarah Churchill, will meet for a settlement conference with Deputy District Attorney Justina McGettigan on Wednesday.

“The judge tries to see if there’s some common ground and if a resolution can be reached without having to have a trial,” Churchill said. “We’ll see what happens.”

Last week, Churchill said she wasn’t sure Strong’s conviction would affect Wright at all.

“I don’t know that it necessarily changes anything,” said Churchill. “I think it may affect our ability to pick a jury in May, but my theory of things is a different theory than [Strong defense attorney Dan] Lilley’s, which is one of the reasons I wanted the cases severed in the first place. I don’t think it really changes a lot from my perspective. It will be interesting to see how things move forward.”

Churchill said she does not expect that Strong’s case can be entered as evidence against Wright. She did find it “interesting” that none of the 18 clients listed on the state’s witness list, who pleaded guilty to engaging a prostitute, were called to testify in Strong’s trial.

Despite that, other attorneys say it will be difficult for Wright to overcome some of the evidence that came to light in the last few weeks.

During Strong’s high-profile trial, jurors were shown videos of Wright engaging in sexual acts with men and accepting money for those acts. They also reviewed text messages, emails and ledgers sent between Strong and Wright discussing and detailing the prostitution operation.

“I think what happened to Mr. Strong could instruct how both sides further negotiate with respect to Ms. Wright,” said defense attorney Stephen Schwartz, who is representing a number of clients charged with engaging a prostitute in relation to the case.

That’s already happening. Churchill said she will seek to dismiss the 46 invasion of privacy counts against Wright, which are the same counts the court dismissed against Strong.

She said she will discuss with prosecutors whether they are willing to voluntarily dismiss those charges or if she needs to file a formal motion.

“That conversation hasn’t happened yet,” she said. “That’s a fair option to give them first.”

If a trial for Wright does take place, Churchill said her concern is seating an impartial jury for a case that has garnered unprecedented media coverage and local interest. While moving the trial venue could be considered, Churchill said the attention in the case has been as saturated elsewhere in the state as it has been in York County.

“It may be you have to solve the problem by waiting,” Churchill said. “If you can’t get an impartial jury anywhere in the state, which I think is a reasonable concern, with this particular case I don’t know what you do other than wait.”

Jury expert Anthony said waiting will almost certainly help Wright in the long run.

“By the time her case comes to trial, from a juror perspective, the case will have subsided quite a bit,” he said. “They’ll have a hard time remembering what might have happened. You’ll have people who will remember there was a story, but most people won’t have a great recollection of the details.”

Decision Quest has conducted studies measuring retention of media events in a case, Anthony said, “and the fade factor is quite dramatic.” Even by Wright’s scheduled May trial, Anthony said potential jurors’ memory of the details of the case will have decreased significantly.

“Far more than you would think,” he said. “Those of us who are so focused on the issue remember what happened and we’re heightened to it. Those whose daily lives don’t revolve around this issue have very little awareness of what has happened. With each passing week it becomes more true.”

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