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Court affirms dismissal of charges against Zumba prostitution defendant

Mark Strong, Sr. talks with his attorney Dan Lilley after Justice Nancy Mills dropped most of the charges against Strong in January.
Mark Strong, Sr. talks with his attorney Dan Lilley after Justice Nancy Mills dropped most of the charges against Strong in January.Gregory Rec / AP

Maine’s highest court has affirmed a judge’s decision to dismiss 46 charges against defendant Mark Strong, accused of helping a woman run a prostitution ring out of her Zumba studio in the resort town of Kennebunk.

All of the charges were related to alleged violations of privacy. Strong, 57, will still stand trial in York County Superior Court on 13 remaining charges, including promotion of prostitution. Dance instructor Alexis Wright, 30, has been charged with 106 counts, including engaging in prostitution. She is expected to go on trial later this year. Both Strong and Wright have pleaded not guilty to all charges.

Wright’s attorneys filed an amicus brief in support of Strong on Feb. 4 in which they stated that Wright had “a vested interest in the resolution of this appeal” due to the similarity of some charges between herself and Strong.

In January, Judge Nancy Mills decided to drop the invasion of privacy charges, which arose from allegations that Wright videotaped herself engaging in sexual acts with clients in her Pura Vida dance studio, as well as at two other locations. The alleged patrons “may have had a subjective expectation of privacy, but I can’t find an objective expectation of privacy that society would be prepared to accept,” Mills said in court last month.

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The decision may be a major blow to the case against Strong. The Supreme Judicial Court wrote that, “the circumstances of the court’s dismissal of the forty-six privacy counts present a reasonable likelihood that the state’s prosecution of Strong has been seriously impaired. The dismissed privacy counts constitute the majority of the criminal counts brought against Strong.”

Maine’s Supreme Judicial Court heard oral arguments earlier in the week, and affirmed the superior court’s dismissal in a unanimous decision on Friday.

“Places of prostitution and people who knowingly frequent them to engage a prostitute are not sanctioned by society,” Supreme Court Justice Jon Levy wrote in the court’s decision. “Accordingly, it is objectively unreasonable for a person who knowingly enters a place of prostitution for the purpose of engaging a prostitute to expect that society recognizes a right to be safe from surveillance while inside.”

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Strong’s trial has experienced repeated setbacks since jury selection began in January. It was expected that it would take a day to seat a jury, but that process stretched past a week before being stalled entirely when Mills dismissed the 46 charges against Strong. The Supreme Judicial Court was forced to make a separate ruling related to the case when a local newspaper filed an expedited appeal to open  the closed-door jury selection to the public.

Jury selection has been on hold pending a decision on whether or not to drop the 46 criminal counts.

On Thursday, before the high court’s decision, Strong’s attorney Daniel Lilley filed a motion with Mills requesting that she lift an order barring him from speaking to reporters while the case is ongoing.

Lilley wrote that the court “has not considered whether even such a blanket prohibition against discussions with the media will be effective in seating a fair and impartial jury, particularly one in which the jurors have already been instructed to turn a blind eye and deaf ear to media reports concerning this case.”