Modern-day Puritans wring hands over Zumba Madam’s list of shame

A Maine court will consider whether a prostitution 'list of shame' is a punishment too Puritanical even for New England, where the fallout may include schoolyard teasing and public shaming.

Robert F. Bukaty/AP
Downtown Kennebunk, Maine. The police department's plan to release some of the more than 150 names of suspected prostitution clients was delayed Friday by last-minute legal wrangling. Alexis Wright has pleaded not guilty to prostitution, invasion of privacy, and tax evasion.
Joel Page/AP
Alexis Wright during her arraignment Tuesday in Portland, Maine.

In the big scheme of things, the names of the “johns” who allegedly hired Kennebunk, Maine, Zumba dance instructor Alexis Wright for sex are simply a matter of public record if solicitation charges are leveled.

Yet on Monday, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court will consider whether what some have called Ms. Wright’s lengthy “list of shame” is a punishment too Puritanical even for New England, where the fallout may include schoolyard teasing and public shaming to add to the powerful intrigues of southern Maine towns and villages.

“We think there's a really important principle at stake here: These people are presumed innocent,” defense attorney Stephen Schwartz said. “Once these names are released, they're all going to have the mark of a scarlet letter, if you will.”

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In his fictional exposé of the Puritans who helped found New England, Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote in “The Scarlet Letter” that “there can be no outrage, methinks, against our common nature – whatever be the delinquencies of the individual – no outrage more flagrant than to forbid the culprit to hide his face for shame.”

The Puritanical code shamed vices in order to improve the common lot and aid common survival, and that unerring view continues to permeate not only New England, but an entire nation that remains, critics say, both egregious in its excesses and churlish in its judgments.

In recent years, some US judges have returned to the “scarlet letter” idea by forcing convicts to publicly display what crimes they’ve committed. The US public, skeptical about the rehabilitative effects of prison, has largely applauded such sentences, according to the New York Law School’s Justice Action Center.

The Zumba Madam case is, of course, different. The names are to be released as a matter of legal course.  Soliciting a prostitute is a misdemeanor in Maine, meaning that those found guilty will face fines but no jail time. But the punishment of being publicly outed could be far worse for the politicians, policemen, farmers, accountants, and even a TV personality who are believed to be included on Ms. Wright’s client list.

“There's still some of that puritanical New England left around," Will Bradford, who owns a copy shop in town, told the Associated Press. "There are places in the world that would laugh at this."

Meantime, however, a counter-Puritan argument has emerged suggesting a more modern idea that the names should be sealed since it’s likely that innocent people will also be victimized by the release of the names.

In a page straight out of Hawthorne, CNN quotes Kennebunk bakery employee Josh Raymond, who says customers are talking about the scandal, but “in hushed tones.” The Portland Press-Herald, the state’s largest paper, has debated whether to publish all names or just those of prominent individuals in order to minimize damage to reputations and livelihoods.

At the local York County Coast Star newspaper, editors and reporters struggled to conclude that publishing the entire list is the right thing to do.

"There are people in this community who have had their names dragged through the mud for months because people believe they are on the list," Coast Star editor Laura Dolce told CNN. "We also believe that printing the names of those charged with engaging a prostitute is the fair thing to do … to help set the record straight and put to rest the ugly rumors that continue to circulate throughout town."

Others say public shaming, in this case, may not be in the community’s interest.

“What about all those wives and children?” writes Portland Press-Herald columnist Bill Nemitz. “Devastating as this might be inside homes throughout Kennebunk and beyond, is there any way to mitigate the misery they’ll experience this week as they head for the workplace, the supermarket, the church, or, worst of all, the school bus?”

"I can't imagine, if the names are published, how I will ever even leave the house knowing what whispers would follow me everywhere," a woman who claims to be married to one of the johns wrote on a Press-Herald comment page.

Ms. Wright, who is 29, is facing 106 criminal counts related to prostitution and tax evasion. She has pleaded not guilty. Her business partner, Mark Strong, has pleaded not guilty to 59 misdemeanor charges in the case. Forty-five men who allegedly hired Wright for illegal services have already been notified of charges against them. A district court judge refused a motion to seal the names, but defense attorneys appealed that decision to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court on Friday.

Southern Maine, which includes a Bush family outpost in nearby Kennebunkport, has been consumed by the intrigue around “The List,” as it’s come to be called. But jokes turned sour for some when police began preparing summonses based on evidence, including 100 hours of videotape, against some of the alleged johns.

One of the alleged johns, identified as “John Doe 1,” stated in court paperwork that public shaming would ruin his life. “I am a productive member of society, I have children, and my family and reputation will be irreparably harmed if my name is revealed pursuant to the so-called ‘list.’”

When it meets next week, however, the Maine high court will have to decide whether to release the names and potentially give a nod to the redemptive power of public shaming, a notion captured in the “The Scarlet Letter” by Hester Prynne, who continued to wear her “A” for adulterer into a respectable, even envied, middle age.

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