Maryland and every state in the nation is awaiting the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on whether DNA samples can be required of individuals who have been arrested but not convicted.
Katherine Winfree, Maryland’s chief deputy attorney general, has a special interest in the ruling, which might not come until the justices’ summer recess. Winfree argued the case last week before the High Court.
While it was not the first time in the legal spotlight for Winfree — she prosecuted the infamous Beltway snipers, among a number of high-profile cases — it was her first time before the Supreme Court.
So was the hour she spent before the justices answering questions and making the state’s case the biggest moment of her professional life?
“I would say it was the most inspirational,” Winfree, a Bethesda resident, said the next day, Feb. 27.
A seasoned lawyer, Winfree came to her job with Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler (D) from Montgomery County, where she also served as his go-to right-hand person when he was state’s attorney.
In the case that brought Winfree to the Supreme Court, the justices are considering whether to uphold, or overturn, a Maryland Court of Appeals decision issued in April that the state’s practice of taking DNA swabs from people charged with violent crimes or felony burglary violates the U.S. Constitution.
Forty-nine states and the District of Columbia signed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting the DNA collection.
Ironically, Winfree’s career began in 1976 drafting briefs for the U.S. Department of Justice that opposed petitions for the high court to hear criminal appeals.
Given that the court decides to hear about 1 percent of cases petitioned, “it didn’t seem like the most meaningful work at the time,” she said.
“To get to come full circle and have the opportunity to participate in asking the court to hear a case and argue the case was an incredible experience,” Winfree said in phone interview from her Bethesda home, where she was taking a day to recover.
Her work on the case, Maryland v. King, began shortly after the Maryland Court of Appeals declined to reconsider its ruling that individuals arrested — who by law are presumed innocent — should not be required in most cases to give DNA samples.
The arrest and collection of DNA from Alonzo Jay King Jr., who faced assault charges in 2009 in Wicomico County, sparked the legal case. King’s DNA later was matched with evidence from a 2003 rape, and he was subsequently tried and convicted of the crime.
The prospect of overturning a 2008 Maryland law that required King to give a DNA sample was “a big deal,” Winfree said. The law was a “signature initiative for Gov. [Martin] O’Malley and something my boss [Gansler] cared about,” she said.
Winfree kept working on the case through the summer when Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., who is assigned to the Fourth Circuit that includes Maryland, granted the stay that has allowed the DNA collection to continue until the court decides.
The work of Winfree and a team that assisted her ramped up when the Supreme Court announced Nov. 9 that the Maryland case was among the few it would hear this term.
The brief went to the printer the Friday before Christmas to meet a Dec. 26 due date.
After Christmas, Winfree’s house became her office on many days to give her more time to work — by cutting out the two-hour commute to and from Baltimore. That saved interruptions, except from her dog, who barked at construction on the street outside her home.
While the case was her primary focus, Winfree managed to juggle her other work, as well as undertaking two formal moot courts in February to prepare for arguing the case. She also continued teaching a course on evidentiary foundations and objections at American University’s Washington College of Law.
For Winfree, Thursday meant back to teaching the class, working — and waiting.