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Accused Zumba pimp trial begins in disorder

Robert F. Bukaty / AP

Mark Strong Sr., right, and his attorney, Dan Lilley, leave the Cumberland County Court House, on Jan. 18, in Portland, Maine.

It takes 12 to tango.

The prosecution of Mark Strong, who has been accused of helping a Maine woman run a prostitution ring from her Zumba workout studio, has run up against an unexpected series of complications this week as the court failed to seat a jury.

Topping the problems off on Friday, Judge Nancy Mills unexpectedly dropped 46 of the 59 misdemeanor counts against Strong — spurring an immediate appeal by attorneys for the state.

Prosecutors say that the men of Maine were knocking down the doors of Alexis Wright’s Pura Vida dance and exercise studio between Oct. 2010 and Feb. 2012, and that Strong helped Wright run a prostitution ring from the storefront in the seaside town of Kennebunk.

Strong pleaded not guilty in October to 59 counts including promotion of prostitution and conspiracy to commit promotion of prostitution.

All of the 46 counts against Strong dropped by Mills on Friday were invasion of privacy charges related to allegations that Wright videotaped herself with clients.

A separate trial for Wright, who has pleaded not guilty to 106 counts, including 45 counts of engaging in prostitution, is not expected to begin until May.

But four days after Strong’s case was supposed to get under way, the high-publicity, slow-simmering case of small-town indiscretion still does not have a jury.

As of Friday, zero jurors had been seated out of a pool of 140 after a series of closed-door selection proceedings, director of court information Mary Ann Lynch confirmed in an email.

The case in Mills’ court also drew into itself, lobster pot-like, a new round of court filings as Maine Today Media, which owns the local Portland Press Herald, filed to put a stop to the secret voir dire hearings.

After Maine Today Media protested on Tuesday, a trial court at first agreed to open the proceedings, but Strong and his attorney objected, expressing “concerns about the ability to draw an impartial jury if the process used by the court were changed,” according to court documents.

In an affidavit filed Tuesday by Maine Today Media, reporter Scott Dolan said that jury selection went on in the courthouse’s basement while members of the press sat in the hallway outside an empty courtroom.

The closed door sessions were finally halted on Thursday, when the state’s highest court ruled in a 6-1 decision that they had to be opened to the public.

“Everything I’ve done in the past few days has been appealed,” Justice Mills said in court at one point Thursday, according to the Press Herald.

The decision to open up the hearings was precedent-setting for Maine, said Sigmund Schutz, counsel to the Press Herald.

 “It’s going to ensure that all aspects of the Alexis Wright trial are conducted in public, at least unless the court makes a decision to the contrary,” he told NBCNews.com.

While it is unclear how long it may take to prepare the court-ordered transcripts of the jury hearings held so far, a confidential juror questionnaire given to the pool was released on Wednesday.

The questionnaire listed 47 people accused of being clients of Wright, and asked if the potential jurors had ever discussed the individual’s cases with friends, family, or co-workers. It also asked if they knew or were related to any of the 72 people who may be called as witnesses in the case.

“You may be shown explicit videos and photographs depicting individuals engaged in graphic sexual acts,” the questionnaire asked. “Would viewing this evidence make it difficult for you to listen to the law and evidence and render a fair and impartial verdict?”

The questionnaire warned of as many as three weeks of testimony, from Wednesday of this week through Friday. Feb. 8. Court broke for the day Friday without a clear date for when testimony may actually begin, Lynch confirmed.

Also in the questionnaire: “If the evidence shows that Alexis Wright was a prostitute, would the fact that defendant Mark Strong had a sexual relationship with her, not for money, make it difficult for you to find defendant Mark Strong not guilty of the crime of promotion of prostitution?”

And: “Do you know Alexis Wright or any member of her family?”

That question gets to the crux of problem with finding jurors: Many townspeople may have gotten to know Alexis Wright all too well -- or known someone who has.

And putting a lid on rampant gossip about the trial might be beyond Mills’ powers. The superior court in Alfred, Maine is only about 15 miles from where Wright operated her Zumba studio in Kennebunk.

The close-knit town of 10,000 was rattled when police began releasing the names of Wright’s alleged clients in October, in one case leading to a local high school hockey coach stepping down from his job.

 “Are you a close friend or family member of any other member of the jury pool?” asked the questionnaire jurors were given. “Do you work with any member of the jury pool?”

In fact, Strong’s attorney argued in a motion filed earlier this month that it would be “impossible” to find a York County jury free of some sort of bias against his client.

NBC News correspondent Katy Tur contributed to this report.