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The Journal Gazette

Friday, January 25, 2013 5:05 pm

Judge drops most charges against man in Zumba case

By DAVID SHARPAssociated Press

A judge on Friday dropped most of the charges against the business partner in a prostitution scandal centered on a Zumba studio, prompting another appeal, more jury selection delays and defense accusations of prosecution "shenanigans."

Justice Nancy Mills dismissed 46 of 59 misdemeanor counts against Mark Strong Sr., saying she didn't think prosecutors could prove those charges.

Prosecutors appealed the dismissal, bringing the proceeding to an abrupt halt. Remaining members of the jury pool were sent home Friday, and it was unclear when jury selection would resume.

Strong, 57, of Thomaston, had pleaded not guilty to all the counts, including conspiring with dance instructor Alexis Wright, who stands accused of using her Kennebunk studio as a prostitution front.

Prosecutors say prostitution clients were videotaped without their knowledge, and all the dismissed charges relate to invasion of privacy.

Strong's attorneys had argued that people engaged in committing a crime - in this case paying for sex - have no right to privacy under a state law aimed at protecting innocent people in dressing rooms and locker rooms. Mills agreed and dismissed the counts, leaving 13 counts related to promotion of prostitution.

Lawyers for the state appealed the mass dismissal to the state supreme court, drawing the ire of Strong's attorneys, who'd pressed for a speedy trial.

Tina Nadeau, one of Strong's lawyers, said the appeal will result in a delay that would be prejudicial to Strong. Potential jurors spent part of Friday waiting for a fourth day in the courtroom basement and she said they might blame the defendant for delays.

"There's no doubt they could take it out on him," she told the judge. "Every minute that we're sitting here, his rights are being violated."

Dan Lilley, Strong's other lawyer, said there was little chance that the supreme court would reinstate the dismissed charges, and he asked that trial on the remaining counts proceed.

He accused prosecutors of "shenanigans" and didn't hold back on his opinion of the appeal: "We think it's frivolous."

They filed a motion Friday afternoon asking the high court to either dismiss the state's appeal or to expedite a hearing.

Strong, a married insurance agent, has acknowledged having a physical relationship with Wright after helping her launch her Pura Vida fitness studio by co-signing her lease and loaning her money that she repaid with interest. He said he was unaware of any prostitution and did nothing wrong.

Police said Wright videotaped many of the encounters without clients' knowledge and kept records suggesting the sex acts generated $150,000 over 18 months.

Wright, who also has pleaded not guilty, faces 106 counts including prostitution and invasion of privacy for acts performed in her dance studio and in a rented office. She'll be tried later.

Strong's trial has been moving in fits and starts.

On Thursday, members of the jury pool were sent home after the Maine Supreme Judicial Court stopped the closed-door selection process in response to a constitutional challenge by the Portland Press Herald. In a 6-1 ruling, the court ordered the remainder of the process in York County Superior Court to be opened.

No jurors have been seated out of the original pool of more than 140.

Mills had been conducting questioning of potential jurors behind closed doors because of potentially embarrassing questions focusing on views on sex, adultery, pornography and prostitution. But the high court said that wasn't reason enough to close the proceedings.


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