Perjury fears throw cases into turmoil

Forensic expert's testimony in myriad criminal trials is suspect

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

With the name "Innocence Project" on her office door, it's not surprising that Michele Nethercott receives a lot of mail from people locked up in Maryland's prisons.

But in the past few weeks - as news spread that longtime police gun expert Joseph Kopera was found to have lied about his qualifications on witness stands across the state - the volume of letters has picked up.

So much so, in fact, that her plastic mailbox fell off the wall.

"It's been overflowing for about the last two weeks," said Nethercott, chief of the small unit of state public defenders who represent people they believe have been wrongfully convicted. "Some people write just because they read about it in the newspaper or they heard about it. And in some instances, people who asked us to review their cases months, or well over a year, ago are now writing back to say, `Oh, by the way, Kopera testified in my case.'"

The first hearing to highlight Kopera's perjurious testimony in a challenge to a conviction will continue to unfold this week in a fifth-floor Baltimore County courtroom. In that case, defense lawyers are asking a judge to overturn former Baltimore police Sgt. James A. Kulbicki's murder conviction and life sentence, in part because of what they called Kopera's "inaccurate and exaggerated" ballistics analysis.

As the legal community closely watches those proceedings, prosecutors, police departments and defense attorneys across the state are taking steps to identify and review cases that the ballistics expert worked on during a career that spanned nearly four decades.

In the six weeks since state police announced that Kopera had killed himself after being confronted with evidence of his falsified credentials, Baltimore County prosecutors have begun reviewing the more than 70 cases that included Kopera's analysis, and have asked the county police crime lab to retest ballistics evidence in cases in which his analysis and testimony were deemed "material" to a conviction.

Baltimore City public defenders have identified 55 felony cases in which Kopera testified and have begun collecting the police reports, court transcripts and other documents needed to determine what role his analysis played in the defendants' convictions.

And state public defenders met Friday with Baltimore police officials to discuss a way to identify cases that Kopera worked on during his 21 years in the department's crime lab and find the "bench notes" that he made while examining bullets, weapons and other ballistics evidence.

"We're still very much at the beginning of all this," Nethercott said. "The question is how or what resources can be brought to bear to start on this. Because everywhere you go, it's a mammoth task."

As a firearms examiner - first in Baltimore and then with the Maryland State Police - Kopera collected and analyzed bullets, shell casings, weapons and other forensic evidence. A favorite witness of prosecutors, Kopera had an authoritative and engaging command of the material he was called upon to describe for jurors, lawyers said.

Questions regarding his credentials were raised this year by attorneys assigned to the state's Innocence Project. They discovered that Kopera not only claimed in court to have college degrees that he did not earn, but also forged at least one document that he offered to the lawyers to verify his qualifications.

Kopera, 61, died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound March 1 - the day his sudden retirement took effect.

Several police investigators and lawyers said then they were shocked to hear that Kopera, who was held in high regard in the law enforcement community, had lied about his credentials. Some said they doubted whether the discovery necessarily meant Kopera had been dishonest about his scientific findings.

Since then, additional perjured testimony has been discovered, defense attorneys say, including Kopera's claims that he taught at local colleges and that he was certified by a national association.

In court last week in Baltimore County, Kulbicki's attorneys told a judge that Kopera's perjurious testimony goes well beyond his listing of qualifications and into the substance of his testimony.

During two days of hearings that are expected to continue this week, defense expert witnesses said that Kopera's testimony in the case was inconsistent with his own reports and notes, and that his conclusions were incorrect.

One of those attorneys, Suzanne Drouet, said that recent retesting of the bullet fragments in Kulbicki's case turned up different results than Kopera reported.

Baltimore County prosecutor S. Ann Brobst, who is handling Kulbicki's case, declined to discuss the test results or release a copy of the examiner's report before it is introduced in court. Michael J. Thomas, the county police firearms examiner, is expected to take the witness stand tomorrow.

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