January 24, 2013

Maine's top court orders public jury selection in Zumba prostitution case

Justice Nancy Mills to release transcripts from closed-door sessions following Portland Press Herald challenge

By Edward D. Murphy emurphy@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

The Maine Supreme Judicial Court on Thursday ordered the remainder of jury selection in the trial of Kennebunk prostitution defendant Mark Strong Sr. to be conducted in public.

click image to enlarge

The jury selection process for the trial of Mark Strong Sr. will now be public.

Photo by Tim Greenway

The Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram had sought an opinion from the Supreme Court after challenging York County Superior Court Justice Nancy Mills' decision to close the jury selection process, known as voir dire, to the public.

Mills said she was worried prospective jurors would not be candid if the proceedings were held in public.

On Thursday, the state's top court first ordered Mills to stop the secret jury selection process and then, in a 6-1 decision, ordered her to open the rest of the process to the public and release transcripts of the closed-door sessions.

"Although the trial court exercises substantial discretion over the mode and conduct of voir dire, a generalized concern that juror candor might be reduced if voir dire is conducted in public is insufficient ... to bar the public or media from the entirety of the process," said the opinion, written by Chief Justice Leigh I. Saufley. She was joined in the opinion by the other justices, except Justice Donald Alexander, who was the lone dissenter.

Strong, 57, of Thomaston, is accused of being a business partner with defendant Alexis Wright in an alleged prostitution operation operated in a fitness studio in Kennebunk. He has pleaded not guilty to 59 counts related to promoting prostitution and invasion of privacy.

Wright, 30, of Wells, is scheduled to stand trial on 106 counts in May. She has pleaded not guilty to all charges, including promotion of prostitution, engaging in prostitution, invasion of privacy, conspiracy, tax offenses and receiving welfare benefits when ineligible.

The case has drawn so much attention in part because Wright is suspected of keeping a meticulous list of more than 150 names of customers, including prominent figures. Affidavits filed by police seeking search warrants earlier in the investigation indicate that Strong may have helped Wright record her encounters with her customers on video.

So far, 66 people have been charged in connection with being Wright's customers. The names of 18 men who have pleaded guilty or been found guilty of engaging Wright for prostitution have been included on the prosecution's witness list.

The court's decision "may change the way jury selection is done" to ensure the process is transparent, the Press Herald's lawyer said Thursday.

"This is a precedent-setting decision. I'm not sure it's a practice that's ever been challenged before," Sigmund D. Schutz said.

"Jury selection is an incredibly important part of a criminal trial. It's a vital First Amendment value that we have public trials in this country."

The Press Herald argued that First Amendment case law shows that the jury selection process should be open except in the most extreme circumstances, such as national security.

The U.S. Supreme Court has held that "trial courts are required to consider alternatives to closure even when they are not offered by the parties," or by anyone else, on the principle that court proceedings should be open to the public to both protect the innocent and serve the public's interest in maintaining confidence in the criminal justice system.

Mills did not respond directly to the ruling in court Thursday, although she did say dryly at one point, "Everything I've done in the past few days has been appealed."

Saufley had stopped ongoing jury selection Thursday morning, pending further review. Mills addressed the chief justice's stay at the end of a hearing on several motions, including one by Strong's attorney, Daniel Lilley, to dismiss about half the charges against Strong.

(Continued on page 2)

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