Strong trial gets under way in York County

By Jeff Lagasse of Journal Tribune | Feb 21, 2013

Kennebunk — Story provided by Journal Tribune.

After wrapping up the final leg of the lengthy jury selection process Feb. 20, prosecutors and defense attorneys gave opening arguments in the case involving Mark Strong Sr., the Thomaston man who is charged in connection with an alleged prostitution business operated out of a Kennebunk Zumba fitness studio.

Strong, represented by Portland attorney Dan Lilley, has been linked to Alexis Wright of Wells, the owner of Pura Vida Studio, who faces multiple counts of engaging in prostitution, evasion of income tax, and other crimes, and who will likely face trial in May.

For Strong, the beginning of his trial represents a return to court after a delay of several weeks, following prosecutors’ appeal of a decision by Justice Nancy Mills to dismiss 46 of the original 59 counts against him.

Those 46 counts pertained to invasion of privacy. Mills ruled in January that a person committing a crime should have no reasonable expectation of privacy; despite an appeal from Deputy District Attorney Justina McGettigan, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court upheld Mills’ ruling, leaving prosecutors to pursue 12 counts of promotion of prostitution against Strong, all Class D misdemeanors, and one count of conspiracy to promote prostitution, a Class E misdemeanor.

During opening remarks Wednesday, McGettigan told the newly-formed jury that witnesses, who begin testimony Feb. 21, will show a clear link between Strong and the alleged activity that took place at Wright’s fitness studio.

“Strong was actively engaged in that business enterprise,” said McGettigan.

Evidence, she said, includes records of texts, phone calls, emails and video chats, which purportedly depict Strong and Wright engaged in discussions about the business, and testimony will likely include comments from nearby business owners who became suspicious of the Zumba studio after clients were seen entering and exiting the building during off-hours, often with the shades drawn. Law enforcement officials are also expected to testify on evidence seized from Strong’s computer hard drive.

Lilley spent little of his opening argument on the particulars of the case, focusing instead on the burden of proof — the standard, he told the jury, that has to be met before a defendant is found guilty.

“The standard is high,” he said. “We have a system in which, if you’re accused of a crime, the prosecution has to prove [guilt] beyond any reasonable doubt.

“There’s no room in this court for half-justice,” he said. “It’s all or nothing.”

Lilley acknowledged that Strong and Wright were involved in a sexual relationship, but that no money exchanged hands, suggesting that it was an affair in which there was no proof of Strong’s culpability in any illegal activity. Neither, he said, does the affair prove that Strong consulted Wright with her business, or acted as a “pimp,” or promoter of unlawful acts.

Attorneys’ opening statements came less than two hours after the final formation of the jury, following down-to-the-wire interviews aimed at selecting the best jurors for the remaining slots. Mills, defense attorneys and the prosecution all interviewed select jurors one by one in a side chamber, with media present, to follow up on answers potential jurors had given in a pre-screening questionnaire.

One juror, who owns a landscaping business, was dismissed after he revealed that his list of clients includes people whose names were released by the Kennebunk Police Department in conjunction with the investigation. He also expressed strong feelings about the illegality of prostitution.

“It should be legal,” he said. “I have a strong opinion about that.”

One man who was admitted to the 16-member jury told Mills and attorneys that he once worked for the Kennebunk Police Department for a period of four years in the early 1970s. He subsequently left the law enforcement field, he said, and does not know any current members of the department. When asked if his former involvement with the department would hinder his ability to form an objective assessment of guilt, he said it would not.

Opening arguments began after a break for lunch.

Witness testimony begins Thursday. Mills conjectured that the trial may last from one to three weeks, expecting a verdict will be handed down by the jury in early March.

Journal Tribune staff writer Jeff Lagasse can be contacted at 282-1535, ext. 319 or jlagasse@journaltribune.com.

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