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Truth and Consequences
When should the state be allowed to take your DNA? The Supreme Court’s answer to that question could determine whether a Maryland rapist goes free. By Harry Jaffe
Illustration by Edel Rodriguez.
Comments () | Published April 30, 2013

Mary Johnson was in bed in the early morning hours of September 21, 2003, when she heard a commotion near the back door. She had lived in her two-story apartment building in Salisbury, Maryland, for many years. She figured the noise was just a neighbor moving around.

Then she heard her floor creak.

She sat up and saw a man standing in her bedroom doorway. He wore a scarf over his face, and the brim of his baseball cap was pulled down over his eyes. He pointed a handgun at her.

“Shut up and give me your purse,” he said. She did, and then the intruder knelt on the side of her bed and started to unzip his pants.

“Please don’t do this,” she said. “Please stop.”

Johnson—whose name has been changed here to protect her privacy—was 53 years old. She had raised her children and helped bring up grandchildren in Salisbury, on the Eastern Shore. She went to church, cared for her mother. For the past 22 years, she had been a clerk in the Maryland Department of Social Services.

“Shut up!” the man said. “Don’t look at me.”

He put the handgun on her nightstand and raped her.

Johnson managed to kick him off the bed, but he pulled her to the floor and put the gun to her head. She felt the metal barrel on her temple.

“Jesus,” she said, “don’t let me die.”

Suddenly he got up, pulled the phone from the nightstand, and tried to rip the cord from the wall. He left with her purse.

Johnson called her daughter, Doris, who alerted the police. When two Salisbury cops arrived, Johnson was crying and shaking uncontrollably. She was able to describe the break-in and rape but couldn’t describe her attacker. An ambulance took her to Peninsula Regional Medical Center, where medical technicians examined her for sexual assault and collected DNA evidence.

Because Johnson couldn’t identify the rapist and there were no witnesses, police couldn’t make an arrest. Detectives sent the DNA from the intruder’s sperm to the state crime lab. Technicians obtained a DNA profile of the suspect and entered it into state and federal DNA databases, but there were no matches.

For the next six years, Mary Johnson cowered. She hammered nails into her back door and windows to secure them. She never walked outside without peering over her shoulder.

The man who raped her was on the loose.

• • •

Salisbury lies 120 miles southeast of DC, a 2½-hour drive over the Bay Bridge, past flat farmland that once grew tobacco, beyond the quaint town of Cambridge, almost to the southeastern tip of Maryland. For Washingtonians headed to Ocean City, Salisbury is a series of stoplights and fast-food joints along Route 50; the Atlantic is 30 miles due east.

Alonzo King Jr.: If the Supreme Court rules in his favor, the convicted rapist could be set free. Photograph courtesy of Salisbury Police Department.

But Salisbury has a rough side, a history of tense race relations, violent crime, and persistent poverty. The estimated per capita income in 2011 was $21,359.

As she boarded the ambulance on the morning of the rape, Mary Johnson noticed a group of young men under the trees across from her building. She recognized Alonzo King Jr. among them.

King, just shy of 21, had close-cropped hair and an open, friendly face. His parents had abandoned him as a child, and he’d been raised by his grandmother, who lived across the street from Johnson. He’d dropped out of school after eighth grade.

King had problems with drugs and a juvenile record. He would later be diagnosed with depression and bipolar disorder.

When he was a kid, one of the few places Alonzo King found safety and peace was in Mary Johnson’s apartment. King and Johnson’s grandson were buddies. From the time he was a young boy, King would eat supper with Johnson, celebrate holidays in her home, hang out after school.

“Grandmom,” he called her.

• • •

One morning in August 2009, Elizabeth Ireland walked through the doors of the Wicomico County judicial center in downtown Salisbury, brushed past the metal detectors, and entered the state’s attorney’s offices. She reached into her mail slot and pulled out a manila folder outlining her new cases. One caught her eye: “Application for charges in a rape case.”

Ireland specialized in prosecuting rape cases. She had grown up in Salisbury but left for college and law school. She returned to her hometown in 1987 and landed a job with the state’s attorney. Few women lawyers were in the courtroom back then, and she was the only female prosecutor. She tried a rape case her first year.

“It snapped me into focus,” she says. “I felt that justice was in my hands. How I do that job affects people for the rest of their lives.”

Ireland has since handled five to ten rape cases a year—nearly 200 over her career as a prosecutor. She didn’t know it that morning in 2009, but this case was headed for the Supreme Court, where it would test the constitutionality of one of law enforcement’s most powerful tools. It would have such wide-reaching implications that Justice Samuel Alito would call it “perhaps the most important criminal-procedure case that this court has heard in decades.”

At her desk, Ireland called Salisbury detective Barry Tucker and asked for the police reports. They began with the account of an assault:

On the afternoon of April 10, 2009, four people were at a gas station near downtown Salisbury when Alonzo King Jr. approached.

“Remember that night at the club?” King asked, referring to a fight almost five months earlier. King then brandished a shotgun. The group scattered, and one of them flagged down a cop.

Police detained King and searched his car, where they found a 12-gauge shotgun shell in the middle console. They arrested him and charged him with first-degree assault, a felony.

At the Wicomico County Central Booking facility, a sample of King’s DNA was taken by swabbing the inside of his cheek. It was sent to the Maryland State Police Forensic Sciences Division and later analyzed by a private lab. In July, King’s DNA profile was uploaded to the Maryland DNA database.

On August 4, 2009, just over four months after King’s arrest for assault, state police contacted Detective Tucker. Alonzo King’s DNA matched the DNA in an unsolved rape case from 2003.

After reading the case and talking to Tucker, Liz Ireland phoned Mary Johnson.

Ireland’s first thought when Johnson walked into her offices was “not the typical rape victim.” Most of Ireland’s clients were under age 30; some were in their teens.

Johnson, then 59, was a compact woman, well spoken and quiet. She wore a simple, dark pantsuit, as if dressed for church.

Detective Tucker had already broken the news to Johnson that Alonzo King could have been the man who’d raped her six years before. The shock had begun to wear off.

“She gave off a sense of affronted dignity,” Ireland recalls. “She was a woman who never imagined she would be sitting in that room with me having that kind of conversation.”

Ireland didn’t want to discuss the facts of the case at their first meeting. She didn’t know at that point how close Mary Johnson and her grandson had been to Alonzo King—that he had called her Grandmom. But Ireland remembers Johnson describing how she had coped for the last six years, during which King had remained in her life.

“I’ve tried to live through it strongly,” she said. “I wasn’t killed. I still have a life and something to live for. But a part of my life will always be damaged.”

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Posted at 10:30 AM/ET, 04/30/2013 RSS | Print | Permalink | Comments () | Washingtonian.com Articles