October 26, 2012

Bill Nemitz: Justice was blind but now he sees

Just what Kennebunk's Zumba prostitution case needed -- a judge moonlighting as a legal contortionist.

"I am vacating the sentence of my order that says the town (of Kennebunk) couldn't release addresses of persons who were also victims of criminal invasion of privacy," declared Superior Court Justice Thomas Warren near the end of a 20-minute conference call Tuesday afternoon with attorneys for, well, just about everybody.

Translation: His Honor blew this one.

By ordering on Monday that the names of dance instructor/alleged madame Alexis Wright's "johns" be released but not their addresses, Warren managed only to cast a cloud of suspicion over innocent men who are unlucky enough to share defendants' names.

That's the bad news.

The good news is that it took less than 24 hours for Warren's legal reasoning -- that a state law protecting crime victims somehow extends to people who are simultaneously charged with crimes of their own -- to be mercifully overtaken by the laws of common sense.

We now pause for a moment of irony: Warren withdrew his order at the request of the men who asked for it in the first place because, in the end, even they knew it was as ineffective as it was unfair.

"They're ready to move forward," said Portland attorney Stephen Schwartz during Tuesday's call, ending his weeklong quest to protect the identities of two clients known only as John Doe 1 and John Doe 2. "They don't think it's fair to other people who may have similar names" to the 100-plus johns who, at long last, have no place left to hide.

The first 21 names, complete with home addresses and ages, is now out there for all to see. Barring any more judicial gymnastics, the rest will soon follow.

And this story -- at least the public part of it -- will finally be over.

So, what happened? How did a straightforward proposition -- you pay a hooker for sex, you get caught, you deal with the fallout as your family and your community find out about it -- turn into such a convoluted mess?

An overreaching lawyer and an overly cautious judge, that's how.

Let's start with the lawyer.

Attorney Schwartz, to be fair, was only doing his job when he strode into Biddeford District Court last week on behalf of two frantic John Does who presumably instructed him to find a way, any way, to keep their names out of the public spotlight.

District Court Judge Andre Jannelle, much to his credit, sent Schwartz packing.

"The judiciary's role in protecting a defendant's rights does not extend to shielding the identity of an adult criminal defendant who has been charged by criminal complaint and summoned to appear in court," ruled Jannelle. "The identity of adult criminal defendants ... is public information."

Hear, hear.

Undaunted, Schwartz took his pleadings to Cumberland County Superior Court in Portland.

There, he introduced the notion that his clients were more than just alleged perpetrators looking for a good time with the Zumba lady: They also became invasion-of-privacy victims when Wright illegally turned on a hidden video camera without their knowledge.

Hence, argued Schwartz, his clients were entitled to protection under a statute that protects victims from having their "address or location" publicly disclosed.

Enter Justice Warren, who bought Schwartz's argument.

Sort of.

After noting that an open, transparent court system "is essential to the public confidence," Warren inexplicably went on to create a whopper of a smokescreen: Release the names, he ruled, but not the addresses.

And so it began.

Some Maine media outlets published the names immediately.

Others, including this newspaper, withheld them until the real Joe Schmoe could be distinguished from all those other Joe Schmoes.

(Continued on page 2)

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