January 30, 2013

In tumult of Zumba trial, judge provides firm hand

Justice Nancy Mills brings her reputation for being tough and fair to a prostitution case complicated by legal skirmishes and media scrutiny.

By Eric Russell erussell@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Opening statements have yet to be made in the trial of Mark Strong Sr., but already the Kennebunk prostitution case is a study in legal maneuvering.

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Justice Nancy Mills brings her reputation for being tough and fair to a prostitution case complicated by legal skirmishes and media scrutiny.

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Justice Nancy Mills

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On one side is Daniel Lilley, Strong's lawyer and one of Maine's most respected defense attorneys.

On the other is York County Deputy District Attorney Justina McGettigan, who lacks Lilley's decades of trial experience but is considered a thorough and fearless prosecutor.

Presiding over it all is Superior Court Justice Nancy Mills, who must steer the high-profile case through what has been a steady stream of legal arguments and media scrutiny.

Since the proceedings started on Jan. 22, there have been numerous stops and starts and, at times, confusion.

Mills has seen one of her decisions overturned by the state's highest court, which also agreed to hear an appeal of her decision last week to drop most of the 59 charges against Strong.

She dismissed 46 counts of violation of privacy, prompting prosecutors to appeal to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court and ask for the trial to be stopped until a ruling is issued. On Tuesday, the court agreed to hear the appeal.

Earlier in the day, there was momentary confusion in York County Superior Court when Mills dismissed the jury pool after rejecting a motion by Lilley to go ahead with trial on the 13 remaining counts against Strong.

She reversed herself after learning that York County, where she normally doesn't hear cases, retains jury pools for two months, unlike Cumberland County, where jury pools are retained for only a month.

Has Mills lost control of the trial before it has really begun?

She has done nothing to suggest that, said Jim Burke, a professor at the University of Maine School of Law. On the contrary, he said, Mills is living up to her reputation as a tough, measured judge who believes in a fair process.

"She has to deal with what comes before her, and the attorneys for the two sides are firing everything they can to gain an advantage," Burke said Tuesday. "Her job is to call balls and strikes."

Walter McKee, a veteran defense attorney in Augusta who has tried dozens of cases before Mills, called her "the perfect judge" for the Kennebunk prostitution case.

"It's a thankless case, but she's the kind of person to take those on," he said. "Above all, she makes sure everyone gets a fair trial. And she's certainly not afraid to make a tough decision."

Leonard Sharon, a defense attorney from Lewiston who also has appeared before Mills many times, agreed.

"When she makes an order, if it's not followed, you're going to hear about it," Sharon said. "I've never known her to lose control. Her strength is her ability to control her courtroom."

Mills has long been accustomed to being in control. She has been a Superior Court justice since 1993, and was chief justice from 2001 to 2004.

Before that, she was a District Court judge and assistant district attorney in Kennebec and Somerset counties. She is a graduate of the UMaine School of Law and was editor of the Maine Law Review.

Her husband, Peter Mills, is the director of the Maine Turnpike Authority and a former state lawmaker and gubernatorial candidate. One sister-in-law is Maine Attorney General Janet Mills.

Nancy Mills' 20-year history as a Superior Court justice is varied. It's hard to derive specific tendencies from cases she presided over, although Mills has imposed some stiff sentences.

In February 2010, she sentenced Leo Rose Hylton to 90 years in prison, with 40 years suspended, for attempted murder, robbery and burglary.

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