New doubt on expert witness

Defense says Kopera forged more than just degrees

March 22, 2007|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,Sun Reporter

The perjured testimony from Joseph Kopera, the state police ballistics expert who killed himself this month after being confronted with evidence that he had falsified his credentials, went beyond claiming to have college degrees that he never earned, defense lawyers contend in newly filed court papers.

Kopera, a high school graduate, claimed he was working on a master's degree and said he taught at several Maryland colleges, transcripts show. He claimed to have earned certification in his field of expertise from a national organization - years before that group even offered such accreditation.

And on a document that defense attorneys say is a forged University of Maryland transcript, Kopera claimed transfer credits from another university he apparently never attended, and listed his grades - mostly C's.

"All of them are lies. More lies," said Michele Nethercott, chief of a unit of state public defenders challenging Kopera's testimony in the 1993 murder case of James A. Kulbicki.

The new court papers - including transcripts of Kopera's testimony from seven cases as well as the transcript - were filed Tuesday in Baltimore County Circuit Court by public defenders seeking a new trial for Kulbicki, a former Baltimore police sergeant who was convicted of killing his mistress and sentenced to life in prison based, in part, on Kopera's ballistics testimony.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys across the state have said that revelations about Kopera's falsified credentials in court testimony could force new trials for some of the hundreds of people he helped convict in a career that spanned nearly four decades. Kopera, 61, died of a self-inflicted gunshot March 1 - the day after his sudden retirement from the state police and weeks after being confronted by lawyers with the Innocence Project, a team of public defenders who represent defendants they believe have been wrongfully convicted.

The Kulbicki case - scheduled for a hearing next month to consider his request for a new trial - appears to be the first to point to the longtime firearms examiner's false testimony to raise doubts about the validity of a conviction.

In the new legal filings, defense lawyers raise questions about Baltimore County prosecutors' objections in 2005 to turning over ballistics evidence from the Kulbicki case to be tested by an independent defense expert.

Prosecutors wrote then that "many of these items ... have deteriorated and their evidentiary value may have changed or could be minimized by their current condition," according to court papers filed in November 2005 by then-Deputy State's Attorney Sue A. Schenning.

S. Ann Brobst, the prosecutor now handling the Kulbicki case, indicated in a March 16 letter to the defense team that she has submitted the ballistics evidence originally analyzed by Kopera to the county police firearms unit to be re-examined.

"The state, in its letter, has not explained how the additional passage of 18 months has improved the evidentiary value of deteriorated evidence," defense attorneys Garrick Greenblatt and Suzanne Drouet wrote in one of three new motions. "Either the state is planning on conducting testing that has no value or it previously misled the court regarding the value of the evidence the defense sought to test."

Schenning, who left Baltimore County this year and now works in Howard County as a prosecutor, said yesterday that she has no recollection of either defense attorneys' requests for the ballistics evidence or her written objections to releasing it.

Brobst, who took over the case in February, said yesterday that she knew nothing of prosecutors' earlier objections to releasing the ballistics evidence for defense testing and has not heard anything from the police that would suggest it cannot be retested.

Bill Toohey, a county police spokesman, said the evidence is "being examined" and that the sergeant in charge of the firearms unit hopes to have "some conclusions" by the end of the week.

Robin Coffin, a deputy state's attorney for Baltimore County, said that while some evidence will probably be fine, other items likely will have deteriorated too much to be reanalyzed.

"With ballistics and bullets, there is the possibility of corrosion and erosion that would alter what can be seen now compared to what was seen then," she said. "But given the change of circumstances - the questions with regard to the credibility of someone found to have lied on the stand and misrepresented his credentials - we have no choice. We have to go back and look."

As a firearms and tool mark examiner - first with the Baltimore Police Department and then the state police - Kopera collected and analyzed bullets, shell casings, weapons and other forensic evidence.

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