PORTLAND — The attorney representing the woman accused of running a prostitution business out of her Kennebunk fitness studio said Friday’s dismissal of 46 of the 59 counts against the woman’s alleged partner in the illegal operation is a “positive” development for her client.
Defense Attorney Sarah Churchill, who is representing Alexis Wright of Wells, said she plans to ask Superior Court Justice Nancy Mills to throw out all invasion of privacy charges against her client as the judge did in the case of Mark Strong on Friday.
“I think the legal circumstances relating the violation of privacy charges are similar in Mr. Strong’s case to those in Ms. Wright’s case,” Churchill said. “So I take today’s ruling as a positive one.”
The trial of Strong, a Thomaston businessman who is accused of helping Wright operate the alleged prostitution operation, is frozen in the jury selection phase after prosecutors with the York County district attorney’s office appealed to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court Mills’ decision to drop 46 of the 59 charges against him.
That appeal is pending. Still remaining against Strong are 13 counts tied to promotion of prostitution.
Wright faces her own trial, in which approximately 46 of the 106 counts against her are also privacy-invasion charges, scheduled to begin in May. Other charges against Wright include prostitution and tax evasion.
Churchill said the lengthy jury selection process in Strong’s trial — in which attorneys have struggled to settle on jurors who have not been influenced by the global media coverage or who don’t know anyone involved in the sprawling case — may make it even more difficult to seat a jury in Wright’s upcoming trial.
Mills granted a motion by Strong’s attorney, Daniel Lilley, to dismiss all privacy violation charges against Strong. The invasion of privacy charges are tied to the fact that the alleged sexual interactions between Wright and the johns were videotaped without the johns knowing. Lilley argued that Maine privacy laws are meant to cover bathrooms, locker rooms and private homes, not to protect individuals engaged in illegal activity.
Lilley argued before the court that protecting the privacy of johns in the illegal act of engaging a prostitute is akin to allowing a drug dealer to claim privacy infringement if caught on film dealing drugs while inside an apartment.
Prosecutors countered that an individual committing a crime is not exempted from simultaneously being a victim of another crime, pointing out that they would prosecute someone for shooting the same hypothetical drug dealer even though the drug dealer may have been selling narcotics at the time of the shooting.
Churchill said she thinks she can pursue a dismissal of the privacy-invasion charges against Wright even without acknowledging that the crime of prostitution is taking place, in part because Mills’ ruling had as much to do with the locations where the videos were allegedly recorded as with the activity taking place.
In issuing her decision in court Friday morning, Mills said she did not believe there was a defensibly “objective” expectation of privacy for the alleged johns at Wright’s fitness studio or business office, for instance, where the videos were made.
“It seemed to me that part of the issue doesn’t necessarily require you to make that leap [that prostitution was taking place],” Churchill said.
Churchill did note that the time-consuming jury selection process in the Strong case may foreshadow the process in Wright’s upcoming trial.
“I wouldn’t have expected to be this time-consuming, but I do think it will take awhile,” she said.
“The hard thing to gauge is what the media coverage is going to be like between the conclusion of Mr. Strong’s trial and the beginning of Ms. Wright’s trial,” Churchill continued. “[The lengthy jury selection in the Strong case] could very well make it more difficult [to seat a jury for the Wright trial], if for no other reason than several hundred people have been exposed to the process already, so that means there’s already a smaller pool of people to start with.”
As many as 250 people in York County were issued jury summonses for the Strong case, and more than 140 turned out at the county courthouse Tuesday to begin filling out questionnaires and sitting for individual interviews with the attorneys and judge.
Mills blocked public and media access to those voir dire interviews with jury candidates based on the reasoning that attorneys would need to ask sensitive personal questions to determine whether the potential jurors could be impartial in a trial bound to include heavy sexual content and explicit evidence.
The judge argued that the jury candidates would be less candid in their answers to the “probing” questions if being watched by the public and media.
But the Portland Press Herald and its parent company, MaineToday Media, successfully appealed Mills’ decision to keep the questioning private to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court on Thursday. Jury selection was scheduled to resume in public Friday, before a second appeal to the high court was filed, this time by prosecutors seeking to overturn the dismissal of 46 charges against Strong.
Churchill said she likely would not seek a change of venue in the Wright trial. Lilley filed a motion to change the location of the Strong trial, in part to find a jury pool less familiar with the case, but Mills denied the motion.
“The media coverage has been international,” Churchill said. “I’m not sure you fare any better by moving it out of York County.”