Maine Supreme Court orders jury selection to be public in prostitution case

Rob Tricchinelli | Secret Courts | News | January 28, 2013

Maine’s highest court reversed a trial judge's decision and ordered jury selection to be public in a notable prostitution prosecution.

“A generalized concern that juror candor might be reduced if [jury selection] is conducted in public is insufficient . . . to bar the public or media from the entirety of the process,” according to the majority opinion, written by Chief Justice Leigh I. Saufley.

The trial court did not consider other less restrictive alternatives to closure that would still preserve the defendant’s rights, the opinion stated.

Trial judge Nancy Mills sought to conduct the jury selection process behind closed doors, wary that prospective jurors in the nationally publicized case would be less candid in publicly answering questions about their views on prostitution and adultery. Insurance agent Mark Strong Sr. is accused of running a prostitution business with Zumba instructor Alexis Wright out of Wright’s fitness studio in Kennebunk, Maine, and filming unknowing clients.

The Portland Press Herald intervened, filing an appeal and challenging the constitutionality of Mills’s order. In a 6-1 decision, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court on Thursday reversed and held that the process must be mostly public. Mills had promised potential jurors confidentiality when she initially rejected the Press Herald’s efforts to open the jury selection process. Jurors were given questionnaires that asked their views on prostitution and adultery and their willingness to view explicit materials.

Strong faces 59 different charges, 46 of which were dismissed by Mills on Friday. The dismissal is being appealed, and Maine’s highest court ruled today that a trial could proceed on the remaining charges while the appeal is pending.

The high court mandated the jury selection process continue “in a presumptively public manner,” with Mills “exercising [her] considerable discretion to prevent the dissemination of sensitive juror information.”

Justice Donald G. Alexander was the lone dissenter, arguing that there was not enough harm to the public in lack of disclosure to justify the highest court’s action and that the trial court had made “explicit findings supporting the decision” to close the courtroom.

Alexander also dissented on procedural issues, saying that it was unusual for a third party to file such a motion.

“I would not grant such extraordinary relief based on the one-sided request of a newspaper publisher, without full understanding of the reasons for the trial judge’s action, and without even hearing the positions of the State and the defense in this difficult proceeding,” he wrote.