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November 9, 2012

Tim Greenway

Alexis Wright

Prostitution case invites legal scrutiny

By Eric Russell
erussell@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Before charges of prostitution in Kennebunk set off a media frenzy, the most high-profile case that Kathryn Slattery had handled as York County's district attorney involved a puppy mill in Buxton.

Now, Slattery and Deputy District Attorney Justine McGettigan, the lead prosecutor in the prostitution case, are under the glare of scrutiny, from the public and from experts and attorneys -- those who are connected to the case and some who aren't.

Some observers say they're surprised at how the prosecutors have handled aspects of the case, in particular the slow, drop-by-drop release of information including the names of alleged prostitution clients of Alexis Wright. More names are expected to be released Friday on the Kennebunk Police Department's biweekly crime blotter.

Others say it's premature to criticize the work of local detectives or the District Attorney's Office without knowing what information they have.

Everyone, though, appears to agree that the case is without legal precedent, at least in Maine.

While it's not uncommon for high-profile criminal cases to drag on for months with legal maneuvering, the prosecution has raised eyebrows with its deliberate approach in this case involving mostly misdemeanors whose typical punishment is a fine on par with a parking ticket.

"I don't understand the benefit, to anyone, of dragging it out like this," said Paul Aranson, a former prosecutor who's now a defense attorney representing one of the suspected clients. "It will be interesting to see how it plays out."

According to court documents, police began investigating Wright in February after word began to spread that she was using her Zumba dance studio for illicit activities. The investigation went public in July with the arrest of Mark Strong, a businessman in Thomaston who police say acted as Wright's business partner.

Evidence seized from Wright's studio and her home in Wells connected her to Strong through bank records and explicit video footage.

Wright wasn't charged until early October, when a York County grand jury indicted her on 106 counts, most of them promoting prostitution or engaging in prostitution. She also is charged with theft by deception, evasion of income tax and failure to pay tax.

The case has drawn national attention, for its lurid details and what authorities say is a list of as many as 150 clients, including some well-known figures.

Daniel Lilley, Strong's attorney, has accused Slattery's office of mishandling the case, citing its failure to provide him with evidence.

Lilley has played a key role in drawing public interest to the case. As soon as his client was charged, Lilley said he would fight to make sure the list of clients was released.

He also created buzz by telling reporters that the list includes prominent figures. So far, the best known name has been that of James A. Soule, a former mayor of South Portland.

In the one major court hearing in the case so far, in early October, McGettigan drew Lilley's ire when she told the judge that Strong's computer contained "markers" consistent with child pornography. Lilley said he was blind-sided by that claim and has denied it.

Justice Nancy Mills responded by telling prosecutors to be more prepared to share information.

Wright's attorney, Sarah Churchill, has not been as outspoken in her criticism, saying only, "There are things about the investigation and the way the prosecution has been handled that are certainly unusual."

McGettigan has declined to comment on the case in the last few weeks. She did not return calls for comment this week.

Slattery issued a news release last month saying her office will not comment on any pending cases.

Robert Ruffner, a defense lawyer who is not involved in the case, said he's not surprised by their silence.

"They are not at all looking for headlines. They could care less about that. They want to do what's right for the process, including for the people charged. They're not looking to make a big deal of it because they can," Ruffner said.

Melvyn Zarr, a professor at the University of Maine School of Law, said he doesn't know whether the prosecutors are correct in charging suspects in waves or should have waited to charge them all at once.

"You have to be in the prosecutor's shoes," he said. "It's a function of adequate resources and time. You have to investigate the case. In an ideal world, you would have infinite resources."

Zarr said the case is so unusual that it is hard to analyze at all.

McGettigan, who has been a prosecutor for many years, is now undoubtedly involved in her most high-profile case.

Slattery has been a prosecutor for more than two decades, and has been district attorney since 2010. She succeeded Mark Lawrence, who held the office for eight years.

In her two years as the county's top prosecutor, Slattery has largely stayed out of the media spotlight, except in one drawn-out case in 2011 that involved animal-cruelty charges. Slattery was criticized for accepting a plea agreement.

Ruffner described both women as experienced professionals.

McGettigan, he said, is always very prepared and brings no "baggage" to a case.

"Don't think that you're going to be able to win a case or win an argument because she's not ready," Ruffner said.

Slattery isn't afraid of any trial or argument and doesn't engage in posturing, Ruffner said.

J.P. DeGrinney, a defense attorney who represents several of the suspected clients, said he believes both prosecutors are pursuing the public good as they see it.

"They don't make a lot of noise and get the job done," he said.

The police investigation has drawn its share of speculation.

Churchill said prosecutors usually wait until an investigation is mostly finished before bringing charges. But the investigation in this case has continued since police first searched Wright's home and office in February.

Since Strong and Wright were indicted, Kennebunk police have been issuing court summonses to alleged clients and releasing their names in small batches. So far, 39 names have been released, on Oct. 16 and Oct. 26. Every time new names are released, there is renewed interest in the case.

Lt. Anthony Bean Burpee, head of the Kennebunk Police Department's detective division, said clients are being charged as the evidence is processed and as the prosecution develops probable cause.

"This process can be faster for some individuals than others," Bean Burpee said. "It really is dependent upon how much cooperation investigators are able to obtain and how fast evidence can be processed."

Even the way in which the defendants' names were first released was controversial. After last-minute attempts were made in court to keep the names private, Kennebunk police released the first batch without identifying features such as middle initials, addresses or ages.

That caused confusion and drew criticism from men with the same names as men on the list. A judge then decided that Kennebunk police should re-issue the list with more identifying information.

Given what has happened over the last several months, it's hard to predict what will happen next.

Most lawyers said it's unlikely that any men will take their cases to trial and risk additional scrutiny, although some may want to try to clear their names.

It's much more likely that the cases against Wright and Strong will go to trial.

That would shift attention to Mills, the justice who was brought in to oversee the case after Justice Joyce Wheeler recused herself.

Mills has a reputation as a "highly respected, strict, no-nonsense" judge, said Jim Burke, a University of Maine School of Law professor.

"I'm sure that her name went into the running because it was known she could keep control of the case. She's not going to let things slip up," Burke said.

Burke said he doesn't think that Mills will let the case go on any longer than necessary.

"One of the problems that the state may have with Justice Mills is she may want to move the case along quickly, and if they're not ready to move, it may be dismissed," Burke said. "She does not suffer fools gladly. You'd better do your job right."

He described the case as a "soap opera car wreck."

"You want to have a good judge for those because they're already a circus," Burke said. "You don't want them spinning out of control.

Staff Writers Scott Dolan and Ann S. Kim contributed to this report.

 

Staff Writer Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at:

erussell@pressherald.com

Twitter: @PPHEricRussell



Kathryn Slattery

Tim Greenway

Justine McGettigan

Tim Greenway

Nancy Mills



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