Jury Selection: Private or Public

Should jury selection in the Mark Strong prostitution case or any criminal case be open to the public and press? Justice Nancy Mills answered that question in the negative this morning when she ruled that jury selection would remain behind closed doors. I completely agree with her. The object of jury selection is to obtain a jury who can be fair and impartial. This means the potential jury members must be able to answer voir dire questions candidly and honestly. Voir dire question go the heart of who you are. That simply is not possible when you are required to do that in front of a news camera or a large group of other people. I am reminded of what another attorney told me about his experience in jury selection. The judge asked the jury pool, about 90 people, if they or anyone they knew were involved in an assault case and if they answered yes would that affect their ability to be fair and impartial. About 6 members of the jury pool answered yes to the first part of the question and that they could still be fair and impartial in front the jury pool and public. The judge then called these 6 jury pool members up to sidebar at the defense attorney’s request and questioned them privately. In private it was learned 4 of these individuals could not be fair and impartial. The moral is that people will be more candid with a small of group of individuals when they feel their answers are private versus answering in a large group setting. Justice Mills, by keeping jury selection private, is ensuring the Mark Strong will be judge by a fair and impartial jury of his peers.

Judge to continue Zumba jury selection behind closed doors

By Scott Dolan
Staff Writer

ALFRED — The judge presiding over the trial of one of the major defendants in the high-profile Kennebunk prostitution case said Wednesday that she will continue to conduct jury selection behind closed doors, over an objection by the Portland Press Herald.

Mark Strong and his attorney Daniel Lilley arrive in the courtroom at York County Superior Court in Alfred on Wednesday.

Gregory Rec / Staff Photographer

“The voir dire will continue to be not open to the media and not open to the public,” Justice Nancy Mills said in the hearing.

Mills made the ruling at a hearing at the start of the second day of jury selection in the trial of Mark Strong Sr. of Thomaston, who is accused of conspiring with former fitness instructor Alexis Wright to run a one-woman prostitution business from her Zumba studio in Kennebunk.

The press and the public have been barred from jury selection, including questioning sessions, called voir dire. The judge has held private sessions with individual prospective jurors in an undisclosed room in York County Superior Court in Alfred with Strong, his attorneys and prosecutors.

Both Strong’s attorneys and prosecutors declined to make any statements on Mills’ ruling.

“This case has been defined from the very beginning by the interests the media has shown,” Mills said. “As concerned as I am about the public, the media and the jurors, my paramount concern in this case is that the state receives a fair trial and that Mr. Strong receives a fair trial in this case, and part of receiving a fair trial is that both parties are able to select a fair and impartial jury.”

Mills said the 145 people in the pool of potential jurors had been told the questioning process would be confidential and that questioning them in the presence of the media might influence their openness.

“I am concerned that the candor would be reduced and that the answers to the questions I asked and that the attorneys have requested to ask and been allowed to ask would be different,” Mills said.
Mills said in the hearing that the media attention in this case has been “unprecedented.”

“The court in this case and in the case of Alexis Wright has been diligent in my view to accommodate the media in an unprecedented way,” she said and cited a page on the courts’ website devoted to filings in Strong’s and Wright’s cases.

“I will say that also in those 19 years, I have presided over cases of very, very significant ramifications for the people of the state of Maine and there have been no media interest in those cases,” Mills said.
Immediately after the judge’s ruling, an attorney for the Portland Press Herald, Sigmund Schutz, filed a hand-delivered appeal of Mills’ ruling and forwarded a filing of the appeal to the Maine Supreme Court.

The Sixth Amendment establishes the right to a public trial except in some narrowly defined cases, 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 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 the public to both protect the innocent and serve the public’s interest in maintaining confidence in the criminal justice system.

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.

The judge, lawyers and Strong convened in a closed room after the hearing and a judicial marshal led nine jurors up a back stairway.

After Tuesday’s all-day process, the judge dismissed 50 of the potential jurors from the pool and ordered the remaining 95 to return Wednesday.

It is unclear how many potential jurors the judge and attorneys intend to call into the closed-door question and answer session, though Mills said she expected the next phase of jury selection to last “several hours” to be followed by another hearing on unspecified motions.

Strong’s trial is expected to last up to three weeks.

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