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Zumba Prostitution Trial: Was it Worth the Resources?
03/25/2013   Reported By: Patty B. Wight

Last week, the man who was found guilty of promoting prostitution out of a Kennebunk Zumba dance studio received his sentence: Mark Strong will spend 20 days in jail and pay a $3,000 fine. The sentence was the culmination of an 18-month-long police investigation, a legal case that took more than a year to prepare, and a trial that lasted two weeks - all for a misdemeanor crime. As Patty Wight reports, Mark Strong's punishment has some questioning the time and resources it took to bring a conviction.

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Strong and Lilley

Mark Strong Sr., (left) and attorney Dan Lilley leave the courthouse during the prostitution trial.

One of those people who question the value of the trial is retired Wells police officer Kent Berdeen, who knows full well the spectrum of crimes that are tried in Maine court rooms.

"While this is against the law, it does not inherently carry any risks to the general public," he says. "My feeling is money would be much better spent prosecuting things like domestic violence, burglary, aggravated assault, domestic assault, prosecuting drunk drivers."

York County does see its fair share of crimes. Deputy District Attorney Justina McGettigan, the prosecutor for the Kennebunk case, says last year the DA's office handled more than 9,000 criminal cases. She says prosecutors decide to take them based on one important question: "We always review a case with the idea of, can we prove this charge beyond a reasonable doubt?"

The answer for the Kennebunk prostitution case, says McGettigan, was yes, because of the overwhelming evidence in videos, texts, emails, and business records. She's actually handling more than 140 cases associated with it - from Mark Strong and his alleged business partner Alexis Wright, to their dozens of clients.

McGettigan says York County prosecutors offer plea deals for every case they take. Strong rejected his, and McGettigan says she could have dismissed the charges at that point.

"And that would send a bad message to society to say, 'There are these laws that are to be enforced, but we're only going to selectively prosecute because it means that we're going to be in a trial for several weeks,'" she says.

McGettigan says Strong's case didn't cost taxpayers any extra money because prosecutors are salaried. And though some believe other cases were pushed aside in favor of the prostitution case, there are 15 prosecutors at the York County DA's office who juggle multiple cases at once - including herself.

"It appeared that more attention was paid to this, but frankly, it was the same attention that any case gets," McGettigan says. "It's just that the public was particularly interested in these cases."

There is one extra cost to the state - an appeal by prosecutors that went to the Maine Supreme Court. By law, the state foots the bill for defense lawyers to fight such appeals. So, what's the total owed to Strong's lawyer Dan Lilley? Just under $23,000.

Defense attorney Darrick Banda, who formerly worked with Lilley, says there's a debate to be had about allocation of resources for a misdemeanor crime.

"Mr. Lilley had the best quote at sentencing, and it was that the state thought they had Moby Dick, but what they got was fish bait," Banda says. "And so when they got into it, I think they thought it was bigger than it really was. And then by the time they realized it, I think they were over their head. You know, it was a poker game where they're all in and they couldn't back out."

"I think that this is kind of a referendum - it turned out to be a referendum, or maybe a Rorschach test - that reflects people's views on whether prostitution should be legal or not," says Biddeford criminal defense attorney Ed Folsom. Folsom says he agrees that the DA's office couldn't back out.

"The prosecution here was faced with a fairly large-scale prostitution operation going on in a small town. And it raised quality of life issues, I'm sure they would say, for the community. The police would have been all over their case if they said, 'Well, you know, we're not going to prosecute this, we're just going to ignore it.'"

"I don't think that the worth of a trial or prosecution, or a defense even, can be based on the outcome," says Robert Ruffner, a criminal defense attorney in Portland.

Ruffner says it takes money to operate the justice system, and he hopes the Kennebunk prostitution case will spur a debate about the use of resources to prosecute crimes.

"Given the budget difficulties that we're having, that probably is a conversation that, as a society, Maine should be having and really trying to take a look at," he says. "You know, have we made too many things crimes that are better dealt with in different ways?"

But Ruffner doesn't think prostitution should be decriminalized because of the potential harm it can do.

File photo by Patty Wight.


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