Wednesday, April 16, 2014
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."
More importantly, Lilley repeatedly noted, police found no evidence whatsoever of money changing hands between Wright and Strong.
"A business partner without money, what kind of business is that?" the defense attorney asked in his closing argument.
Lilley, in the face of the state's overwhelming evidence, had no choice but to muddy the waters -- and by the time the jury finally began deliberating Wednesday morning, it appeared to be working.
Many in the peanut gallery (see: talk radio, reader comment forums) had Strong walking on all 13 counts -- one for conspiring to promote prostitution, the rest for promoting prostitution.
Ah, but that jury. Despite all the (ahem) distractions, these 12 citizens good and true were not so easily swayed.
They clearly consulted the law: Under Maine statute, "pecuniary benefit" is but one of seven criteria that constitute promotion of prostitution; another is leasing "a place controlled by the defendant, alone or in association with others, to be regularly used for prostitution."
And tempting as it might have been to buy the defense argument that the police targeted Strong because he was looking into shenanigans in the department, the jury undoubtedly recognized the difference between solid evidence and so much smoke.
In short, these jurors did precisely what society asked them to do: Tune out the babble, focus on the facts and render a decision based not on conjecture, but simply on the law.
Better still, they did it in just 4½ hours of deliberations.
Wednesday afternoon, shortly after Justice Nancy Mills privately thanked the jurors for their service and dismissed them for the last time, a court officer emerged from the courthouse entrance and asked the media horde to respect their request to be left alone.
Then the door opened and, one by one, they emerged in single file and paraded past the cameras, the silence broken only by their footsteps on the gravelly parking lot.
End of story? Not by a long shot.
As prosecutors now set their sights on Wright (let's settle this one) and police resume issuing summonses to dozens of her alleged customers (any famous ones?), the grumbling will only grow louder:
Is this whole fiasco truly worth all the time and money it's consuming?
And what about Maine's prostitution law? Is it, as Lilley maintains, in need of a legislative overhaul?
Worthy questions all.
But before we hit the "resume" button on the Great Zumba Debate, let's pause long enough to applaud this jury for its hard work, long hours and, last but not least, its undivided attention.
It was enough to leave anyone speechless.
Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at