ALFRED – With jury selection set to start Tuesday in the trial of Mark Strong Sr., a key defendant in the Kennebunk prostitution case, lawyers will soon find out whether the intense media coverage will affect the court’s ability to seat an impartial jury.
Strong was the first person to be charged in the case, in July, and is the first to stand trial. He is accused of conspiring with Alexis Wright, a former Zumba instructor, to run a one-woman prostitution business from her studio in Kennebunk.
Some in Maine’s legal community say it will be extremely difficult to seat an impartial jury, especially in York County, where residents have been inundated for nearly a year by news reports and gossip about Wright and Strong.
“I don’t think you could pick an impartial jury on Mars in this case,” said Stephen Schwartz, an attorney with the Portland law firm Schwartz & Schwartz. “I wouldn’t know what to think of someone who said they hadn’t heard of this case.”
Schwartz, who has practiced law for 28 years and was the first president of the Maine Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys, said that if a potential juror even claims to be fair and impartial, that person will be hard to exclude.
Others say the jury selection process will be effective in weeding out potential jurors who can’t be fair.
“An impartial juror doesn’t mean somebody who’s never heard about the case. They may have formed an impression on this, but they are able to keep an open mind,” said Peter DeTroy III, who has been in law for 41 years. “Ultimately, I have no doubt that you (seat a jury). I’m not one who is cynical about the process.”
Schwartz and DeTroy have an indirect interest in the case. They have clients among the 66 people who have been accused, so far, of engaging Wright for prostitution.
Schwartz represents 11 of the accused men, three of whom have pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor and are listed as prosecution witnesses against Strong.
DeTroy, of the Portland law firm Norman Hanson & DeTroy, represents three who are accused of engaging Wright for prostitution. The cases against his clients are pending, and they have not yet been called as witnesses.
Strong, 57, of Thomaston, faces 59 counts of promotion of prostitution, violation of privacy and conspiracy to commit those misdemeanors.
Wright, 30, of Wells, is charged with 106 counts, including promotion of prostitution, engaging in prostitution, invasion of privacy, conspiracy, tax offenses and receiving welfare benefits when ineligible. Her trial is tentatively scheduled to begin in May.
Both have pleaded not guilty.
A total of 250 potential jurors have been ordered to report to York County Superior Court on Tuesday for the jury selection process, which is expected to last two or three days. The lead prosecutor, York County Deputy District Attorney Justina McGettigan, had questionnaires sent to each one.
Strong’s attorney, Daniel Lilley, filed a motion last week to move the trial, but Justice Nancy Mills denied the motion after only brief arguments.
“York County is where all the attention is. It’s where everyone seems to have an opinion,” Lilley said last week in arguing to change the venue. “This case has seen more publicity than any other case I’ve seen in the state of Maine, other than a murder trial.”
Melvyn Zarr, a professor at the University of Maine School of Law, said a trial judge is authorized to try to seat a jury before moving a trial to another county.
“If (Mills) can seat an impartial jury, that’s one thing. If she can’t, then the defense can renew its motion for a venue change,” Zarr said.
He said it would “very unusual” if the venue had to be changed. “I think the general rule is, the judge will try to seat a jury,” he said.
Ralph Lancaster Jr., who was first admitted to the Maine bar in 1955 and has seen many juries selected over the years, said the process always depends directly on the question-and-answer session involving the potential jurors, the judge and the attorneys.
Lancaster, of the Portland firm Pierce Atwood, said lawyers submit the language of the questions, and the judge typically decides which questions to ask. The lawyers may raise challenges based on the potential jurors’ answers.
“It depends on two things,” Lancaster said. “It depends on the ability of the judge. And it depends on the honesty and openness of the jurors. Because there has been a lot of attention in this case, there is a concern that the jury pool may have been tainted.”
Paul Aranson, a former Cumberland County district attorney who is now a defense attorney representing one of Wright’s alleged customers, said he doesn’t know anyone who hasn’t heard of the case, and the prosecution is partially to blame.
Kennebunk police and prosecutors chose to announce new charges in the case in waves. Strong was charged first, then Wright, followed by group after group of alleged “johns.”
“The way the state has proceeded in his case, every week they have names of more people, has kept it percolating,” Aranson said.
“They may find as they go down the list of the individual people that they are not able to find an impartial jury,” he said. “The judge can always change her mind if it’s decided that people can’t be fair and impartial.”
Strong’s trial is expected to last as long as three weeks. Prosecutors have filed a witness list with 57 names, including 18 men who have pleaded guilty or been found guilty of engaging Wright for prostitution. Wright is not on the list.
Lilley has yet to submit a witness list.
Staff Writer Scott Dolan can be contacted at 791-6304 or at: