ALFRED — Jury selection for the trial of one of the major defendants in the high-profile Kennebunk prostitution case was conducted behind closed doors Tuesday, with the public and the media barred from the proceedings.
In a case that has drawn international attention, Mark Strong Sr. of Thomaston is accused of conspiring with Alexis Wright to run a one-woman prostitution business from her Zumba studio in Kennebunk.
Tuesday morning, judicial marshals led 145 prospective jurors into York County Superior Court at 9:30 a.m. The marshals told members of the media who gathered in the hallway that there was no room for them inside.
The jurors were then sent to the basement of the courthouse to complete a questionnaire.
The judge in the case, Justice Nancy Mills, had issued an order last week that said because the courtroom’s seating capacity is only 110, “when filled with prospective jurors, there is little, if any room for the public or the media.”
Mills met with prosecutors and Strong’s defense team in private Tuesday, leaving Strong to sit by himself in the courtroom for much of the afternoon.
Strong then left the courtroom, apparently through a back door, and a small number of potential jurors were brought up a back stairwell of the courthouse, rather than through the courtroom.
Each one was then brought individually to an undisclosed room to be questioned by the judge in the presence of Strong, his attorneys and the prosecutors. Neither the media nor the public was allowed in.
During the proceedings, an attorney for the Portland Press Herald hand-delivered a letter to the court’s criminal clerk’s office, objecting to the closure.
“It’s well settled that the public and the media have the First Amendment right to be there for jury selection,” said attorney Sigmund Schutz. “We understand and respect there are challenges for high-profile cases. But those are the cases that are the most important to have access.”
The Sixth Amendment establishes the right to a public trial, except in narrowly defined situations such as juvenile cases, rape cases or those involving sensitive or classified information. A judge can close a courtroom only after considering all potential alternatives, and then only in extreme circumstances.
The U.S. Supreme Court has held that “trial courts are required to consider alternatives to closure even when they are not offered by the parties,” or by anyone else, on the principle that court proceedings should be open to protect the innocent and maintain the public’s confidence in the criminal justice system.
“Public access to jury selection ensures accountability and oversight and makes sure jurors are selected fairly and impartially,” Schutz said. “Making sure the jury selection process isn’t tainted in any way is of vital importance.”
Schutz said closing jury selection to the public “isn’t completely out of the question,” but it can be done only in the most extreme circumstances, such as for national security or if a threat of violence against jurors exists.
Strong, 57, has pleaded not guilty to 59 misdemeanors, including promotion of prostitution, violation of privacy and conspiracy to commit those misdemeanors.
Wright, 30, of Wells, is scheduled to stand trial on 106 counts in May. She has pleaded not guilty to all charges, including promotion of prostitution, engaging in prostitution, invasion of privacy, conspiracy, tax offenses and receiving welfare benefits when ineligible.
Authorities allege that Wright kept meticulous customer records, with about 150 names, including some well-known people.
So far, 66 people have been charged with engaging a prostitute in connection with Wright. Prosecutors have put 18 of them on their list of witnesses for the trial, all of whom have pleaded guilty or been found guilty of the misdemeanor.
Tuesday’s jury selection was conducted behind closed doors until 4:37 p.m., when all 145 potential jurors were led back into the courtroom. Media members were initially denied entry, then allowed in to stand and watch.
Justice Mills recited the numbers of 50 prospective jurors, telling them that they were excused from the case. She ordered the other 95 to return Wednesday morning to resume the selection process.
“Please do not discuss this case with anyone,” Mills said. She ordered them not to read, listen to or watch any media reports about the case.
After jurors were dismissed for the day, Mills allowed members of the media to approach the bench to discuss why they were barred from the day’s proceedings.
She acknowledged that she had received the letter from the Press Herald. “I understand they want to make legal arguments,” Mills said.
The judge said her priority was to seat a jury, and she did not want to allow the media to attend the questioning of individual jurors. She distributed copies of the juror questionnaire to five media outlets.
Jurors were asked in the questionnaire whether they had heard or read anything about the cases against Strong or Wright, or other people charged in the case; whether they know or are acquainted with any of the 72 potential witnesses who may be called in the trial; and 38 other questions ranging from their views on religion, adultery and prostitution to whether viewing pornography and graphic pictures would be difficult for them.
Strong’s attorney, Daniel Lilley, had sought a change of venue, saying that too many people in York County had heard about the case and formed opinions. The judge denied that motion.
Lilley, who is usually open with the press, declined to comment on Tuesday’s events as he walked to the courthouse parking lot with Strong and his co-counsel, Tina Nadeau.
“There’s really nothing I can tell you,” Lilley said. “The judge wants us to pick a jury first.”
The judge set a motions hearing for 8:30 a.m. Wednesday, to be followed by a resumption of jury selection at 9 a.m.
Strong’s trial is expected to last two to three weeks.
Staff Writer Scott Dolan can be contacted at 791-6304 or at: [email protected]