ALFRED — An attorney for one of the major defendants in the Kennebunk prostitution case told a jury Wednesday that Mark Strong Sr. had an extramarital affair with Alexis Wright but wasn’t her “pimp,” as police allege.
In his opening statement in Strong’s trial, Daniel Lilley said pimps usually bring customers to prostitutes for a profit, but Strong neither paid for sex nor profited from his relationship with Wright.
“Did he promote prostitution or did he fall in love and have an extramarital affair with a woman, including sex, but not for money, and help her with her life?” Lilley asked in York County Superior Court. “Affairs are bad decisions perhaps, but not crimes.”
Deputy District Attorney Justina McGettigan told jurors in her opening statement that they could expect to hear from police who raided Wright’s and Strong’s properties, and from witnesses who saw men frequenting her Zumba studio in the daytime.
“Men would go in singly. And then at night, (the witnesses) would see people coming for dance lessons. That’s when the lights were on and the shades were up. But during the day, that’s when things were dark,” McGettigan said. “Mr. Strong was aiding Ms. Wright in her business of being a prostitute in Kennebunk.”
McGettigan said Strong and Wright communicated by text and phone and video chats on the days her prostitution customers visited her.
Testimony from witnesses is expected to begin Thursday morning. The trial is expected to take three weeks.
The opening statements in Strong’s trial, the first in the case since the scandal broke last year, came after the lawyers finished a jury selection process that took nearly a month.
Jury selection began on Jan. 22, stalled after three days, then resumed Wednesday morning. The 16-person jury, including the four alternates, comprises 10 men and six women.
Jury selection began behind closed doors but a legal challenge by the Portland Press Herald halted the secret proceedings. The Maine Supreme Judicial Court agreed with the newspaper’s appeal on constitutional grounds.
On Wednesday, Justice Nancy Mills invited members of the media to sit in on a court proceeding, then invited them to reconvene in an upstairs library for individual questioning of prospective jurors.
The prosecutors and Strong’s lawyers had selected 23 of the 250 potential jurors as finalists before the process was halted by the Press Herald’s appeal.
While awaiting the high court’s decision last month, Mills acted on a motion by Strong’s attorneys and dismissed 46 of the 59 counts against him.
In seeking the dismissal of charges related to violation of privacy, for Strong’s alleged role in recording prostitution clients, Lilley argued that people who break the law by paying for sex can’t have an expectation of privacy.
Mills agreed, and prosecutors appealed to the Supreme Court, stopping the trial again before jury selection could resume.
Last week, the court upheld Mills’s decision to dismiss the 46 counts, clearing the way for Strong’s trial to resume on 12 counts of promotion of prostitution and one count of conspiring with Wright to promote prostitution.
On Wednesday, one potential juror who was questioned was a man who owns a landscaping business in Kennebunk. He said he feels strongly that prostitution should be legal.
“I’ve always believed that. I’ve never wavered from that opinion,” said the man, identified only as juror number 65.
The man also said that he felt police wouldn’t arrest someone without evidence.
Lilley asked the man, “Do you want to be a juror in this case?”
“I do,” the man responded.
After the man had been led out of the library, McGettigan argued to dismiss him. She was interrupted by Lilley, who said, “You can stop. We agree.”
They then questioned a medical assistant who is a mother of two, a woman who assists her husband at his chiropractic business, and a man who was a police officer in Kennebunk in the early 1970s. They accepted all three as finalists, and the three were on the jury that was seated by 12:30 p.m.
In each round of questioning, Mills asked the first questions, followed by McGettigan and then Lilley. Questions varied from person to person, focusing on their jobs, their families, what they had heard about the case and whether their backgrounds or beliefs about the case would prevent them from being fair and impartial.
Lilley asked each: “Do you want to be a juror in this case?”
The medical assistant said she knew very little about the details of the case and had not read or heard news accounts about it.
“I know there was a Zumba studio ring for prostitution. I know that’s what the rumor is; I don’t know if it’s true or not,” she said.
The woman who assists her chiropractor husband said she learned from hearing other potential jurors talk about the case that she knew much less about it than the others did.
“I heard the word Zumba on the very first day and put two and two together,” said the woman, the mother of two grown children.
The former Kennebunk police officer said he served in the department for only three or four years in the early 1970s and no longer knows anyone on the force. He also said he knew very little about the case.
“I heard about the studio in Kennebunk and saw Mr. Strong’s and Alexis Wright’s pictures on TV,” he said. “That’s really about all I know about it.”
After selecting those three as finalists, the lawyers took a 15-minute break to decide how to use their allotted challenges, called peremptory strikes.
Prosecutors and defense attorneys are not required to give reasons when using the strikes. Lilley and McGettigan presented them to the judge at the side of her bench.
Strong, 57, of Thomaston, is accused of conspiring with Wright to run a one-woman prostitution business from her studio in Kennebunk.
Wright, 30, of Wells, has pleaded not guilty to 106 counts, including promotion of prostitution, engaging in prostitution, conspiracy, tax offenses, receiving welfare benefits when ineligible — and 46 counts of violation of privacy.
Her attorney, Sarah Churchill, said she will ask the judge to dismiss the latter charges. Wright’s trial is scheduled to start in May.
The case has drawn so much attention in part because Wright is suspected of keeping a meticulous list of customers, including prominent figures. Sixty-six have been charged, and 18 had been convicted by the end of 2012. The 18 have been called as witnesses in Strong’s trial.
Scott Dolan can be contacted at 791-6304 or at: