ALFRED – With jury selection set to continue behind closed doors Thursday in the trial of a key defendant in the Kennebunk prostitution case, the Portland Press Herald continued its legal fight to make the proceedings public.
Justice Nancy Mills ruled Wednesday, at the start of the second day of jury selection, that potential jurors in the trial of Mark Strong Sr. would continue to be interviewed in a back room off the courtroom in York County Superior Court, out of public view.
The Press Herald had filed an objection Tuesday to the secret jury selection process.
Strong, 57, of Thomaston, is accused of conspiring with Alexis Wright to run a one-woman prostitution business from her Zumba studio in Kennebunk. She allegedly kept meticulous records of about 150 customers, including some well-known figures.
Mills said in issuing her ruling that the media attention in the case has been “unprecedented.”
For two full days, the judge has held private sessions with prospective jurors, Strong, his attorneys, prosecutors and perhaps others. The press and the public have been barred from the proceedings, called voir dire.
On Wednesday morning, the judge spoke in open court on her decision to keep the jury selection behind closed doors.
“The voir dire will continue to be not open to the media and not open to the public,” Mills said around 9:15 a.m.
“This case has been defined from the very beginning by the interests the media has shown,” she said. “As concerned as I am about the public, the media and the jurors, my paramount concern in this case is that the state receives a fair trial and that Mr. Strong receives a fair trial in this case, and part of receiving a fair trial is that both parties are able to select a fair and impartial jury.”
Mills said that the 145 potential jurors had been told their questioning would be confidential, and that questioning them in the presence of the media might influence their openness.
“I am concerned that the candor would be reduced and that the answers to the questions I asked and that the attorneys have requested to ask and been allowed to ask would be different,” Mills said.
Immediately after Mills ruled, the Press Herald appealed in York County Superior Court and sought an opinion from the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.
By the end of Wednesday, Chief Justice Leigh Saufley had not issued an opinion.
Wednesday evening, Mills rejected the appeal, which was filed for the Press Herald by attorney Sigmund Schutz, seeking to halt the closed-door jury selection process.
“The intervention now sought ‘will unduly delay’ and potentially prejudice the rights of the original parties,” Mills wrote in rejecting the appeal. “The court is mindful of the need for open proceedings where such proceedings will not prejudice the state and the defendant.”
Strong has pleaded not guilty to 59 misdemeanors, including promotion of prostitution, violation of privacy and conspiracy to commit those misdemeanors.
Wright, 30, of Wells, is scheduled to stand trial in May on 106 counts. 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.
According to a judicial marshal who said she spoke with the judge but was not present for voir dire, the jury selection for Strong’s trial is set to conclude Thursday morning, with opening arguments tentatively planned for the afternoon.
Schutz’s firm, Preti Flaherty, said it plans to make further filings Thursday in York County Superior Court and await action from the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.
The Sixth Amendment establishes the right to a public trial except in some narrowly defined circumstances, such as juvenile cases, rape cases or those involving sensitive or classified information. A judge can close a courtroom only after considering all potential alternatives, and then only in extreme circumstances.
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.
After Tuesday’s proceedings, the judge held a brief session in the courtroom with all 145 members of the original jury pool and dismissed 50 of them.
At the end of Wednesday, Mills made no statement about what had occurred in the closed sessions and ordered prosecutors and defense attorneys not to talk to the media about them.
A judicial marshal who the judge authorized to speak to the media said roughly 37 potential jurors had been questioned individually Tuesday and Wednesday.
Some of the 95 people remaining in the jury pool Wednesday were released, but she didn’t know how many.
Strong’s trial is expected to last as long as three weeks.
Staff Writer Scott Dolan can be contacted at 791-6304 or at: