March 8, 2013

Bill Nemitz: Amid tawdry details, the beauty of our jury system

Wednesday afternoon, just after they convicted Mark Strong on 13 counts of promoting and conspiring to promote prostitution, members of the most watched jury in Maine's recent history took a poll on what, if anything, they wanted to say to the media horde waiting outside.

To a man and woman, they voted to keep their mouths shut.

Can you blame them?

"I never argue with a jury," observed a subdued defense attorney Dan Lilley, moments after the seven male and five female jurors quickly exited the York County Courthouse. "It's a useless exercise."

Indeed. And in this case, it underscores the beauty of our judicial system: When it's all said and done, the people who say the least are the ones whose opinions matter most.

You couldn't watch the first (and hopefully the last) trial stemming from the Kennebunk Zumba Scandal without wondering how it must have felt to sit in that jury box, day after eye-popping day, through a proceeding that lasted longer than most murder trials.

To wit: One day, jurors spent almost an hour watching video -- on a big screen, no less -- of alleged Zumba madame Alexis Wright performing a variety of sexual acts with one of her countless "johns."

As Portland Press Herald staffer Scott Dolan reported, "Some (jurors) frowned, one rocked in his chair and another looked down and away from the screen for short periods before looking back at the screen."

To wit: While the jurors watched this state's "exhibit," all eyes in the courtroom -- the judge, the attorneys for both sides, the rows of media types -- were on them.

"I would look over and they'd be embarrassed," Lilley said in an interview Thursday. "So I didn't look over anymore because I didn't want them to feel bad."

To wit: Attached to the main prostitution saga was a salacious side plot about an affair between the lead Kennebunk police investigator in the case and her superior officer, who no longer works for the department.

So tangled did this web become that at one point Lilley considered injecting a little comic relief by invoking Aretha Franklin's 1985 hit album "Who's Zoomin' Who?" (In the end -- thank God for small favors -- he thought better of it.)

To wit: Yet another sidetrack involved the now-infamous pizza shop manager who recalled feeling "really awkward" the day he went to Wright's home to deliver spaghetti and meatballs.

With no warning whatsoever, the pizza man recalled, Wright dropped the towel covering her otherwise naked body and then inexplicably gave him a $30-plus tip. (The tip, he testified, "made my day.")

We could go on -- the confiscated condoms, the four bottles of baby oil, the tube of Astroglide -- but you get the point. If ever there was a jury suffering from evidentiary overload, it had to be this one.

And that was just the tawdry stuff.

Even as they sifted through 100 or so X-rated video-screen grabs that Strong collected from his faraway hometown of Thomaston, the jurors had to weigh two very different theories of what was going on here.

According to Deputy District Attorney Justina McGettigan, Strong and Wright had what was unquestionably a business relationship -- from Strong's signature on Wright's Zumba studio lease to the 21,000 text messages the two exchanged from February 2010 to February 2102. (That's 28 texts per day, seven days per week, 52 weeks per year.)

Lilley, on the other hand, tried to spin a tale of a hapless "middle-aged man infatuated with a young woman -- and he'll do anything for her. He doesn't even know where the line is he's stepping over."

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