Judge in Zumba trial defends closed-door jury selection

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Superior Court Justice Nancy Mills also suggested worldwide coverage of the case since the October indictment of Strong and accused partner Alexis Wright has been inordinately intense compared to trials of more importance to Mainers that she said have gone on without media attention.

The judge said it is important to be able to ask the potential jurors sensitive personal questions to ensure that each one chosen could be impartial in a trial expected to include explicit evidence and heavy sexual content.

Mills was responding to a letter she said she received Tuesday afternoon from Portland attorney Sigmund Schutz, representing the Portland Press Herald, protesting the judge’s decision to make questioning of potential jurors closed to the public and media.

Jury selection is continuing at the York County Courthouse on Wednesday morning, a process Mills said will take “several” more hours, and along with a hearing of any new motions filed in the case, could delay opening arguments in the high-profile trial until Thursday.

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The judge said 250 jury summonses were distributed in York County. Approximately 140 potential jurors came to the courthouse Tuesday, and after eight hours filling out questionnaires and sitting for individual interviews with the judge and attorneys in the case, 50 were released from duty. The remainder were expected to return to the court Wednesday to continue on in the lengthy process to whittle down to 12 jurors and as many as four alternates.

“Probing questions and candid answers are necessary to ensure that the state of Maine and Mark Strong receive a fair and impartial trial,” Mills told the court Wednesday morning, adding that she believed allowing the media into the voir dire, or jury selection, interviews would restrict the attorneys’ ability to ask sensitive sexual questions and the potential jurors’ ability to answer frankly.

She also said she feels “the court in this case … has been diligent in accommodating the press in an unprecedented way,” through the posting of court documents on a public website and issuance of a specific media order.

“This is the first time in 19 years [on the Superior Court] we have not been able to select a jury in one day,” Mills said, adding, “This case has been defined by the interests of the media. I can also say I’ve presided over many cases of significant interest to the people of Maine, and there was no media coverage.”

The judge did not specify which cases she was referring to.

Strong, 57, faces 59 counts — mostly charges of promotion of prostitution and invasion of privacy — in the high-profile case, in which he allegedly worked with fitness instructor Wright to set up a prostitution business out of her Kennebunk Zumba studio. Strong, who runs an insurance business, and Wright both have pleaded not guilty to the charges against them in their respective cases.

Wright faces a separate trial, scheduled to begin in May.

Mills has denied motions filed in recent weeks by Lilley to dismiss the charges, suppress evidence, delay the start of the trial until at least Feb. 19, and change the location of the trial. She also on Friday denied Lilley’s motion to withdraw from the case, saying Strong is not adequately trained to defend himself in the sprawling, complicated prostitution case.

The trial is expected to go on for as long as three weeks, and as many as 72 witnesses, included 18 men who have been convicted of paying for sex in the case, may be called to testify.

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