EvidenceProf Blog

Editor: Colin Miller
Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Court of Appeals of Maryland Finds Defense Attorneys Couldn't Have Discovered Baltimore Ballistics Expert's Lies Before 2007

According to a newspaper article headlined, “Police expert lied about credentials,” by Jennifer McMenamin, published 9 March 2007, in the Baltimore Sun, Kopera claimed in court to have degrees that he had not earned in fact. Kopera testified frequently that he had a degree from the Rochester Institute of Technology (“RIT”) in photographic science/engineering and, on at least one occasion, testified that his RIT degree was in aerospace engineering. Kopera claimed also to have a mechanical engineering degree from the University of Maryland. The 2007 article reported that Kopera had forged at least one document (a transcript that he claimed was from the University of Maryland) offered originally to attorneys with the Innocence Project, attempting to justify his qualifications. In response to further questions from the attorneys at the Innocence Project, Kopera provided allegedly a “certificate of training” from the United States Air Force, to what intended curative effect remains opaque. Hunt v. State, 2021 WL 2306669 (Md. 2021). 

Pursuant to CP § 8-301(a),

(a) A person charged by indictment or criminal information with a crime triable in circuit court and convicted of that crime may, at any time, file a petition for writ of actual innocence in the circuit court for the county in which the conviction was imposed if the person claims that there is newly discovered evidence that:


(i) if the conviction resulted from a trial, creates a substantial or significant possibility that the result may have been different, as that standard has been judicially determined; or

(ii) if the conviction resulted from a guilty plea, an Alford plea, or a plea of nolo contendere, establishes by clear and convincing evidence the petitioner's actual innocence of the offense or offenses that are the subject of the petitioner's motion; and

(2) could not have been discovered in time to move for a new trial under Maryland Rule 4-331 (emphasis added).

So, could defense attorneys have discovered Kopera's lies before 2007?

In Hunt, the Court of Appeals answered this question in the negative, concluding that

It took Dorothy some time to discover that the reputation of the “all-powerful” Wizard of Oz was not precisely as advertised. Perhaps, had she exercised some diligence in vetting him on the front-end of their encounter, she might have spared herself and her traveling companions the misadventures suffered at the hands of the Wicked Witch of the West (and her flying monkeys) at her castle. Nonetheless, no one dare fault her for relying initially on the accreted high opinion of the Wizard.

There seems to us some similarities between Dorothy's and the Wizard's relationship and this case. Unfortunately, the consequences of the late Joseph Kopera's deception of Maryland's courts, the Bar, and defendants for decades in a host of criminal cases in which he testified for the State as an “expert” in the field of firearms ballistics, based in part on later-discovered falsities in his academic curriculum vitae, have not proved to be resolved easily by legal wizards.1 In an effort to cut through at least a strand of the larger Gordian Knot left in the wake of the 2007 discovery of Kopera's misrepresentations, we shall adopt a somewhat outside-the-lines resolution of the present case in order to clear a path for Maryland courts to get more quickly to the more taxing question of whether Kopera's deceit, once discovered, created, under Maryland's actual innocence statute, “a substantial or significant possibility that the result [of the trial] may have been different.”..We shall hold that, in this case and in all similarly situated “Kopera cases,” trial counsel were not expected reasonably to uncover Kopera's deception before 2007, in the absence of specific information that should have put counsel on inquiry notice to investigate sooner Kopera's background.



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