The Portland Press Herald

The joint project — a brief for a case before the Maine Supreme Judicial Court — went smoothly.

Walt McKee, an Augusta-based lawyer, and Zachary Heiden, legal director of the ACLU of Maine Foundation, divvied up the work and emailed each other drafts and comments over a couple of weeks. Heiden would send his contributions to McKee around midnight, McKee would go to work around 3 a.m., as is his custom, and his response would be ready when Heiden woke.

The lawyers argued in their friend-of-the-court brief that it was unconstitutional for a state trooper to stop a motorcyclist, Ronald LaPlante, solely to seek information about another motorist speeding in the area. Last year, the court agreed and vacated LaPlante’s conviction for operating under the influence, citing his unjustified stop and seizure.

The case is one achievement that the ACLU of Maine notes in giving McKee its 2012 Justice Louis Scolnik Award. The award for commitment to the protection of civil liberties will be presented to McKee tonight at the Harraseeket Inn in Freeport.

Heiden said McKee, who worked on the brief as a representative of the Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, distinguishes himself with his ability to collaborate. “He doesn’t have a big ego or get hung up on a lot of — or any kind of — posturing,” he said. “He just puts his head down and does the work.”

McKee, 44, has handled numerous high-profile criminal cases, including the killing of an Augusta Mental Health Institute patient by another patient and the bludgeoning death of a 14-year-old girl by a neighbor her age.

McKee is now in solo practice, where his work continues to be divided between civil and criminal cases. He is also chairman of the state Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices.

In describing his career choices and other activities — whether it’s violin, his time in the Maine Army National Guard or being a pilot — McKee doesn’t tell of an “ah-ha moment.” It’s more a matter of taking an interest in something and pursuing it.

He said his legal work boils down to not being able to stand by when someone isn’t getting a fair shake.

“I hate it. And I won’t stand for it and I really don’t mind fighting about it,” he wrote in an email.

In choosing McKee for the award, the ACLU of Maine highlighted McKee’s work on two court cases: the first successful medical-marijuana defense and a lawsuit over the suicide of an inmate in Kennebec County’s jail.

The first involved Donald Christen, founder of the marijuana-legalization advocacy group Maine Vocals. In 2008, the state’s medical marijuana statute had been in place for nearly a decade. Christen admitted that he cultivated and possessed marijuana, but maintained he did so for medical purposes and for a specific patient.

The other case was filed by the mother of Jason Rozell, 24, of Whitefield, who killed himself in 2002, three days after his mother reported his suicide threats to jail officials. The case was settled under confidential terms.

McKee does all the legislative advocacy for the Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers — tracking legislation, submitting testimony and attending public hearings, said Sarah Churchill, president of the group.

She said he is “single-handedly responsible for preventing some legislative mistakes from being made.”

Recently, those included an anti-gang bill that raised questions about freedom of association and stereotyping, said Alysia Melnick, public policy counsel for the MCLU of Maine.

Sen. David Hastings, R-Fryeburg, said McKee has always championed the rights of the accused, which is not necessarily a popular position.

“Walter has always been able to do that in a way the Legislature has been receptive to, understanding of and responsive to,” said Hastings, Senate chairman of the Judiciary Committee.

In the case of Patrick Armstrong, the Fayette boy who killed 14-year-old Marlee Johnston, there was concern about putting such a young defendant into the adult prison system. Ultimately, the boy agreed to be tried as an adult and plead guilty to manslaughter. The state dropped the murder charge.

Armstrong was sentenced to 16 years in prison, after serving time in a juvenile facility for burglary. The blended sentence of juvenile and adult institutions was believed to be the first in Maine.

“I was very impressed with Walt’s willingness to think outside of the box in terms of trying to reach the right resolution,” said Deputy Attorney General William Stokes. “Some defense attorneys will fight, fight, fight. But sometimes the best interests of your client dictates that you look for other resolutions. I think Walt was very savvy and compassionate when he looked at that case.”

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