Maine judge to resume Zumba prostitution case
ALFRED, Maine (AP) — Delayed by a pair of appeals to the state supreme court, jury selection is set to resume Wednesday in the trial of an insurance agent accused of helping a fitness instructor use her Zumba studio as a front for prostitution.
Justice Nancy Mills convened attorneys for defendant Mark Strong and fitness instructor Alexis Wright on Tuesday to get the case back on track after the state supreme court upheld the dismissal of 46 counts against Strong.
Afterward, she ordered remaining members of the jury pool to report Wednesday morning to complete the selection process, which started nearly a month ago.
Potential jurors were in limbo for more than three weeks after prosecutors appealed the judge’s decision to dismiss 46 counts accusing Strong of violating the privacy of prostitution clients who were videotaped without their knowledge. The married insurance business owner still faces 13 other counts dealing with promotion of prostitution.
Both Strong, 57, of Thomaston, and Wright, who ran the fitness studio in Kennebunk, have pleaded not guilty.
Remaining jury selection in Strong’s case will be held in open court instead of behind closed doors after a lawsuit by the Portland Press Herald that went to the supreme court. Wright is due to be tried at a later date.
On Tuesday, Mills addressed several matters, including a suggestion by prosecutors that there could be an appearance of a conflict of interest because of the judge’s personal and business relationships. However, prosecutors maintained that there were no legal impediments to prevent her from continuing to preside over the case.
Mills explained that she was satisfied with steps taken to ensure that her sister-in-law, Maine Attorney General Janet Mills, isn’t involved in prosecuting the case. She also didn’t see an insurmountable obstacle upon learning that her husband’s law firm once represented a Kennebunk police investigator who’s expected to testify.
She said neither instance rose to the level of having to remove herself from the case.
“I can act with complete impartiality in this matter,” she said.
Defense lawyers supported her decision to stay on the case.
The prostitution scandal generated national and international attention, both because of the small-town location and the scope of the alleged operation. A lawyer who has seen the client list says it totals more than 150, including some prominent names.
The judge has tried to tamp down pretrial publicity, telling attorneys not to talk to reporters. On Tuesday, she rejected a request by one of Strong’s lawyers to lift the gag order, which will be in effect until jurors are seated.
The judge also ruled that the defense cannot call two chief prosecutors to testify. The defense has contended Strong was singled out for overzealous prosecution.
Strong said he helped Wright launch her Pura Vida dance-fitness studio by co-signing for her lease and loaning money. He said he didn’t know about allegations of prostitution.
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