ALFRED, Maine — Jury selection in the trial of Mark Strong, a Thomaston businessman accused of helping run a prostitution business in Kennebunk, will continue into a third day Thursday.
The judge presiding over the case said that in 19 years on the Superior Court, the sensational trial represents the first time she has not been able to seat a jury in a day or less.
The York County Court House closed Wednesday without a resolution of a legal effort mounted by the Portland Press Herald to bring the jury selection process to a halt over Superior Court Justice Nancy Mills’ ruling to bar the press and public from court interviews with potential jurors.
In a Wednesday morning oral decision, Mills suggested worldwide coverage of the case since the October indictment of Strong and accused partner Alexis Wright has been inordinately intense compared to trials of more importance to Mainers that she said have gone on without media attention.
The judge said it is important to be able to ask the potential jurors sensitive personal questions to ensure that each one chosen could be impartial in a trial expected to include explicit evidence and heavy sexual content.
Mills was responding to a letter she said she received Tuesday afternoon from Portland attorney Sigmund Schutz, representing the Portland Press Herald, protesting the judge’s decision to make questioning of potential jurors closed to the public and media.
Schutz told the BDN after the judge’s decision that he has appealed the ruling to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, and that he hoped to receive the high court’s ruling on his appeal before the end of the day Wednesday. The court closed without an announcement on a ruling.
Schutz also said he is seeking injunctive relief from the state supreme court, in effect asking to stop the jury selection process until the high court rules on whether the public and media can be kept out of the proceedings.
He said he is arguing that blocking access to the questioning violates the First Amendment of the Constitution protecting the freedom of the press.
The jury selection process continued on at the York County Courthouse on Wednesday while awaiting an opinion from the high court on the appeal.
If the jury selection is allowed by the Supreme Court to be completed, opening arguments in the case may be held as early as Thursday afternoon.
The judge said 250 jury summonses were distributed in York County. Approximately 140 potential jurors came to the courthouse Tuesday, and after eight hours filling out questionnaires and sitting for individual interviews with the judge and attorneys in the case, 50 were released from duty. The remainder were expected to return to the court Wednesday to continue on in the lengthy process to whittle down to 12 jurors and as many as four alternates.
“Probing questions and candid answers are necessary to ensure that the state of Maine and Mark Strong receive a fair and impartial trial,” Mills told the court Wednesday morning, adding that she believed allowing the media into the voir dire, or jury selection, interviews would restrict the attorneys’ ability to ask sensitive sexual questions and the potential jurors’ ability to answer frankly.
She also said she feels “the court in this case … has been diligent in accommodating the press in an unprecedented way,” through the posting of court documents on a public website and issuance of a specific media order.
“This is the first time in 19 years [on the Superior Court] we have not been able to select a jury in one day,” Mills said, adding, “This case has been defined by the interests of the media. I can also say I’ve presided over many cases of significant interest to the people of Maine, and there was no media coverage.”
The judge did not specify which cases she was referring to.
Dr. Art Patterson, a jury selection expert and social psychologist for the Boston-based trial consulting firm DecisionQuest, told the BDN Wednesday that while he didn’t believe the Kennebunk prostitution case was as high-profile as the 1995 O.J. Simpson murder case, he believes granting a change of venue would have been a reasonable step for Mills.
“Change of venue is often a good idea, even when the judge does not think so,” Patterson said. “Having testified as an expert many times on how pretrial publicity can color a juror’s perception of the evidence, I am confident that judges often do not understand that simply because a juror states that he [or] she can set aside what they have read about the case does not mean that they actually can. So the judge may be wrong to think that [she] can uncover all prejudice against the defendant in voir dire.”
With that in mind, however, Patterson said he felt Mills’ decision to keep the interviews closed to the public and media was justified.
“Closed jury selection is OK because jurors who are not there through their own choice may have to reveal personal beliefs and experiences about sensitive subjects such as sexual behavior, use of prostitutes, etc.,” he said. “However, the court must make information known to the public about the process of the jury selection so that we know justice is being served.”
Strong, 57, faces 59 counts — mostly charges of promotion of prostitution and invasion of privacy — in the high-profile case, in which he allegedly worked with fitness instructor Wright to set up a prostitution business out of her Kennebunk Zumba studio. Strong, who runs an insurance business, and Wright both have pleaded not guilty to the charges against them in their respective cases.
Wright faces a separate trial, scheduled to begin in May.
Mills has denied motions filed in recent weeks by Lilley to dismiss the charges, suppress evidence, delay the start of the trial until at least Feb. 19, and change the location of the trial. She also on Friday denied Lilley’s motion to withdraw from the case, saying Strong is not adequately trained to defend himself in the sprawling, complicated prostitution case.
The trial is expected to go on for as long as three weeks, and as many as 72 witnesses, included 18 men who have been convicted of paying for sex in the case, may be called to testify.