Testimony questioned in capital cases

March 24, 2007|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,sun reporter

When she heard the news about the Maryland state police ballistics expert who killed himself after being confronted with evidence that he'd lied about his credentials, Denise Barrett went to her office and flipped through piles of court transcripts.

There, among hundreds of pages of testimony in Flint Gregory Hunt's capital trial, was the name - Joseph Kopera - along with his recitation of college degrees that he had not earned.

"I thought, `Oh my God,' and that's when the sickness in my stomach set in," said Barrett, a federal public defender who handled Hunt's last rounds of appeals before he was put to death in 1997.

Prosecutors say Kopera's testimony was not pivotal in the case against Hunt, who admitted to the killing. Still, Barrett said, "No matter what way you cut it, you have a man executed based, in some way and to some degree, on the testimony of a man who committed perjury."

Lawyers across Maryland have said that the revelations about Kopera's falsified credentials could prompt the review of hundreds of cases that he worked on and force new trials for some of those he helped convict during a career that spanned nearly four decades. Prosecutors in Baltimore County and the U.S. attorney's office for Maryland ordered a review of cases involving Kopera, and the state public defender's office sent out letters this week asking prosecutors throughout Maryland, and the Baltimore and state police departments, to help identify cases that included his analysis.

For capital defense lawyers like Barrett, the discovery about Kopera raises particularly troubling questions - whether some of the men who have populated Maryland's death row would have been convicted and sentenced to die if his fraudulent claims had been discovered sooner, and whether the entertaining and engaging witness might have lied about more than just his qualifications with a defendant's life on the line.

As Barrett was sifting through boxes from the Hunt case, a defense lawyer representing a man on Maryland's death row was weighing what to do about a similar discovery. Attorney Fred Warren Bennett said he intends to file new court papers challenging the conviction and death sentence of Jody Lee Miles. The request to reopen the court proceedings, he said, will be based on the revelations about Kopera - who matched a gun linked to Miles with bullets found in the body of a community theater director shot to death in 1997 on the Eastern Shore.

"The legal test is whether or not, based on the newly discovered evidence, there's a substantial probability that the outcome would have been different," Bennett said. "If the jury had heard that he was a liar, that certainly would have impacted sentencing."

Kopera shot himself to death March 1, weeks after being questioned about his false claims from the witness stand that he had degrees from the Rochester Institute of Technology and the University of Maryland. Since then, additional perjured testimony has been discovered, defense attorneys say, including Kopera's claims that he taught at several local colleges and that he was certified by a national association.

No one seems to know for sure how many cases he worked on in his 37 years on the job - first with the Baltimore Police Department and then with the state police - or how many were decided, in part, on his testimony. By his own estimate, Kopera examined guns, bullets and other evidence in 1,400 to 1,600 cases a year, and took the witness stand in federal and state courts 100 to 125 times annually, according to transcripts from the Hunt case.

Michele Nethercott, who heads up the small unit of state public defenders who confronted Kopera several weeks ago, said she knew of three capital cases that involved Kopera's testimony.

In addition to the Hunt and Miles cases, she said, Kopera also testified at the trial of Wesley Eugene Baker, who was executed in 2005 for the robbery and murder of a grandmother on a shopping center parking lot 14 years earlier.

Scott D. Shellenberger, the chief prosecutor in Baltimore County, said Kopera's testimony was "not at all" crucial to establishing that Baker, and not another man involved in the robbery, fired the fatal shot.

Gary W. Christopher, who represented Baker in appeals, said another ballistics expert found after the trial that the gun's trigger was uncommonly sensitive, suggesting that the weapon may have gone off accidentally. He said Kopera told him his notes showed the gun's trigger pull was not unusual. Appeals courts did not find the issue worthy of overturning any decisions, Christopher added.

Kathryn G. Graeff, chief of the criminal appeals division of the state attorney general's office, declined to comment on Kopera's role in any capital cases.

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