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.
This is the second time we have considered the actual innocence petition of Petitioner, Ronnie Hunt. In the previous iteration of this case, we held that Hunt was entitled to a hearing on his petition in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City. State v. Hunt, 443 Md. 238, 116 A.3d 477 (2015) ("Hunt I"). In the present iteration, we are
CP § 8-301(a).
We refer to Hunt I for context:
Hunt I, 443 Md. at 242, 116 A.3d at 479.
Hunt sought unsuccessfully postconviction relief. Thereafter, on 30 September 2010, Hunt, having become aware of the revelation in 2007 of the scandal surrounding Kopera's perjured testimony in hundreds
The circuit court denied Hunt's first amended petition, without a hearing, on the ground that it "fail[ed] to state a claim or assert grounds for which relief may be granted pursuant to [§ 8-301(a)]." Hunt (self-represented) appealed,
Upon remand, Hunt, now represented by counsel,
Second Amended Petition, filed 6 February 2017, at 5-6 (citation and quotation omitted).
Following a hearing, the circuit court denied Hunt's second amended petition on the sole ground that Kopera's false testimony concerning his credentials was not newly discovered evidence. The circuit court did not address whether Hunt had demonstrated a "substantial or significant possibility" that, but for Kopera's perjured testimony, the outcome of his trial may have been different. We quote from the circuit court's memorandum opinion:
Memorandum Opinion at 3-4 (citations and footnote omitted).
In its memorandum opinion denying Hunt's petition, the circuit court relied upon the Court of Special Appeals's decision in Jackson v. State, 216 Md.App. 347, 86 A.3d 97, cert. denied, 438 Md. 740, 93 A.3d 289 (2014), which held, in another Kopera case, as follows:
Id. at 365-66, 86 A.3d at 108 (citations omitted). For the sake of convenience, we shall refer to this hereafter as the "Jackson presumption."
Hunt appealed. Our colleagues on the intermediate appellate court affirmed in an unreported opinion. Hunt v. State, No. 2429, Sept. Term, 2017, 2019 WL 6329310 (filed 26 Nov. 2019). In its decision, the Court relied upon the Jackson presumption, as well as its decision in Kulbicki v. State, 207 Md.App. 412, 53 A.3d 361 (2012), rev'd, 440 Md. 33, 99 A.3d 730 (2014), rev'd, 577 U.S. 1, 136 S.Ct. 2, 193 L. Ed. 2d 1 (2015) (per curiam),
The Parties' Contentions
Hunt contends that the circuit court erred in finding a lack of due diligence by trial counsel because he failed to discover Kopera's fraud in time to move for a new trial under Maryland Rule 4-331(c). He assails the circuit court's reliance upon the Jackson presumption, asserting that it is contrary to "considered dicta" in Hunt I and that we should make explicit now what previously we had suggested only. In other words, Hunt urges us to disapprove the so-called Jackson presumption, according to which the mere fact that another attorney, in 2007, had uncovered Kopera's fraud demonstrates that any other attorney in a Kopera case, prior to that time, could have performed the same feat.
According to Hunt, several untenable conclusions follow inexorably from the circuit court's ruling: (1) every defense attorney in a Kopera case tried prior to 2007 failed similarly to exercise due diligence; (2) every prosecutor involved in trying those cases during that same time span likewise either failed to exercise due diligence or, even worse, failed his or her obligations to disclose exculpatory evidence to the defense under Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83, 83 S.Ct. 1194, 10 L. Ed. 2d 215 (1963), and its progeny; (3) similarly situated cases could result in diametrically opposed outcomes, compare Jackson, 216 Md. App. at 365-66, 86 A.3d at 107-08 (finding no abuse of discretion in lower court's finding of absence of due diligence because a different attorney had discovered Kopera's fraud) with McGhie v. State, 224 Md.App. 286, 299-300, 120 A.3d 828, 835-36 (2015) (finding no abuse of discretion in lower court's finding of due diligence despite trial counsel's failure to discover Kopera's fraud), aff'd on other grounds, 449 Md. 494, 144 A.3d 752 (2016); (4) given that courts have held generally that the prosecution has no Brady obligation to disclose a "secret fraud" of which
The State counters that: (1) there is no conflict between our considered dicta in Hunt I and the decisions of the Court of Special Appeals regarding due diligence; (2) courts should follow a case-by-case approach in deciding the merits of actual innocence petitions, including whether the petitioner has satisfied due diligence; (3) researching an opposing expert's credentials prior to trial is reasonably diligent behavior; (4) the circuit court did not abuse its discretion in finding that, given the discovery of Kopera's fraud in 2007 by another attorney in the course of the Kulbicki case, Hunt's attorney could have discovered, but did not, that same fraud as relevant to Hunt's 1991 trial; and (5) the Jackson presumption does not impose an unworkable standard upon defense attorneys.
Standard of Review
"[T]he standard of review when appellate courts consider the legal sufficiency of a petition for writ of actual innocence is de novo." Hunt I, 443 Md. at 247, 116 A.3d at 482 (citations omitted). "Courts reviewing actions taken by a circuit court after a hearing on a petition for writ of actual innocence limit their review, however, to whether the trial court abused its discretion." Id. at 247-48, 116 A.3d at 482 (citations omitted).
Because the instant case involves review of a circuit court's decision on the merits of an actual innocence petition, the latter (deferential) standard of review applies. Therefore, we offer the following observations regarding the origins and application of that standard.
Because, as we shall explain, the actual innocence statute was anchored to the motion for new trial on the ground of newly discovered evidence, both this Court and the Court of Special Appeals looked to decisions interpreting Maryland Rule 4-331(c) (governing motions for new trial on the ground of newly discovered evidence) when first interpreting the statute. See, e.g., Douglas, 423 Md. at 188, 31 A.3d at 269 (recognizing that "decisions on the merits of requests for new trials based on newly discovered evidence, whether filed pursuant to Rule 4-331 or the [actual innocence statute], are committed to the hearing court's sound discretion"); Jackson, 216 Md. App. at 363, 86 A.3d at 106 (citing Miller v. State, 380 Md. 1, 28, 843 A.2d 803, 819 (2004) (interpreting Rule 4-331(c))), disapproved on other grounds by Hunt I, 443 Md. at 263-64 & n.26, 116 A.3d at 492 & n.26; Keyes v. State, 215 Md.App. 660, 668-70 & n.6, 84 A.3d 141, 146-47 & n.6 (2014) (citing Campbell v. State, 373 Md. 637, 665, 821 A.2d 1, 18 (2003) (interpreting Rule 4-331(c)) and Douglas, 423 Md. at 182-83, 31 A.3d at 265-66), cert. denied, 438 Md. 144, 91 A.3d 614 (2014).
It is unsurprising that we apply deferential review to a trial court's denial of a motion for new trial. Such a motion is heard nearly always by the same judge who presided over the trial, typically close enough in time that the trial judge can recall (from memory or notes) the facts of the case. In Campbell, we said that
373 Md. at 666, 821 A.2d at 18 (quoting Buck v. Cam's Broadloom Rugs, Inc., 328 Md. 51, 58-59, 612 A.2d 1294, 1298 (1992)). Moreover, we noted that "the discretion afforded a trial judge `is broad but it is not boundless,'" id. at 665, 821 A.2d at 18 (quoting Nelson v. State, 315 Md. 62, 70, 553 A.2d 667, 671 (1989)), and that, specifically, in "the context of the denial of a motion for a new trial in a criminal case,... `under some circumstances a trial judge's discretion to deny a motion for a new trial is much more limited than under other circumstances.'" Id. at 666, 821 A.2d at 18 (quoting Merritt v. State, 367 Md. 17, 29, 785 A.2d 756, 764 (2001)).
In applying these principles to appellate review of a circuit court's denial of an actual innocence petition, we note that several of the factors articulated in Buck, weighing in favor of broader deference to a circuit court's denial of a motion for new trial, are more attenuated in a case such as that before us. For one thing, the judge ruling on the merits of an actual innocence petition typically has no "opportunity ... to feel the pulse of the trial" and to rely on his or her "own impressions in determining questions of fairness and justice."
The actual innocence statute was enacted to alleviate a perceived problem faced by convicted persons seeking to challenge their convictions on the ground of newly discovered evidence, namely, that, under some circumstances, a claim of newly discovered evidence was time-barred despite the due diligence of the claimant in raising it as soon as feasible. Taking a broader view of the historical context, we note that, as recently as the early 1960s, although a postconviction petition could be filed then "at any time," Md. Code (1957, 1959 Cum.
In that context, the General Assembly enacted CP § 8-301 to remedy the problem. 2009 Md. Laws, ch. 744. Section 8-301 has been a bit of an enigma. Although it lacks an express provision governing appeals, we have interpreted it as permitting a direct appeal if a petition is denied, Douglas v. State, supra, 423 Md. 156, 31 A.3d 250, but not if it is granted. Seward v. State, 446 Md. 171, 130 A.3d 478 (2016). In so interpreting the statute, we have determined that it is, in essence, akin to a motion for new trial on the ground of newly discovered evidence, albeit unencumbered by the time limits of Rule 4-331(c). Thus, unlike a proceeding under Title 7 of the Criminal Procedure Article (Uniform Postconviction Procedure Act), a proceeding under section 8-301 is not a separate, collateral proceeding.
Although a petition under section 8-301 may be filed "at any time," we have determined further that the scope of a claim that may be brought is narrower than permitted under Rule 4-331(c). Thus, unlike the scope of claim permitted in a motion for new trial under Rule 4-331(c), which is constrained only by the requirement that the proponent demonstrate a "substantial or significant possibility" that, had the newly discovered evidence been before the fact finder, its verdict would
Although the actual innocence statute has been amended several times since its original enactment, the statutory language at issue has remained unchanged and reads:
CP § 8-301(a) (emphasis added).
Our sole task here is to interpret the bolded language in the context of the class of Kopera cases. Turning to Rule 4-331(c), which defines the outermost time limit in the rule, we observe that it provides that a court "may grant a new trial or other appropriate relief on the ground of newly discovered evidence which could not have been discovered by due diligence in time to move for a new trial pursuant to section (a) of this Rule [i.e., within ten days after a verdict]." Thus, the actual innocence statute incorporates by reference the due diligence requirement of Rule 4-331(c). That, of course, is why we (and our colleagues on the Court of Special Appeals) look to decisions interpreting Rule 4-331(c) in interpreting the statute.
In Argyrou v. State, 349 Md. 587, 709 A.2d 1194 (1998), a Rule 4-331(c) case, we said that to "qualify as `newly discovered,' evidence must not have been discovered, or been discoverable by the exercise of due diligence, within ten days after the jury has returned a verdict." Id. at 600-01, 709 A.2d at 1200-01 (footnotes omitted). In a footnote, we noted further that "[e]xculpatory evidence known, at the time of trial, or, as in Maryland, prior to the expiration of the time for filing a motion for new trial, though unavailable, in fact, is not newly discovered evidence, and, thus, will not suffice as a ground on which to grant a new trial." Id. at 600 n.9, 709 A.2d at 1200 n.9 (citations omitted).
Whether evidence is newly discovered "has two aspects": a "temporal one," that is, when the evidence was discovered; and a "predictive one," that is, when it "should" or "could" have been discovered. Id. at 602, 709 A.2d at 1201. "Due diligence" is relevant to the latter aspect, id., and, in this context, "contemplates that the defendant act reasonably and in good faith to obtain the evidence, in light of the totality of the circumstances and the facts known to him or her." Id. at 605, 709 A.2d at 1203.
The Court of Special Appeals has elaborated further as to what due diligence requires. In Love v. State, 95 Md.App. 420, 621 A.2d 910, cert. denied, 331 Md. 480,
The holding of the Court of Special Appeals in Seward has been criticized for drawing this distinction between the reasonableness required of trial counsel in the context of a Strickland claim
The circuit court, and the State in its brief, emphasize that the evidence of Kopera's fraud could have been discovered at the time of Hunt's trial. Although that proposition may be attractive in a more perfect world, we think it reflects a cramped and unrealistic notion, under the circumstances of the Kopera cases, of the reasonableness and good faith envisioned in the due diligence standard. Simply put, Kopera was, prior to the unearthing of his fraud, regarded widely as a trained and knowledgeable expert in ballistics who had been accepted to testify in courts throughout Maryland and several neighboring jurisdictions for decades before 2007. It appears that no cause was given, nor did it occur reasonably to any defense counsel until 2007 to question his credentials.
We hold that, in this and all similarly situated cases tried prior to the 2007 discovery of Kopera's fraud, in the absence of particularized facts that would have put defense counsel on inquiry notice of Kopera's fraud, due diligence did not require defense counsel to unearth the unfortunate charade. This is (hopefully) a unique class of cases. Parties in non-Kopera cases should be chary of transposing our reasoning in this case to other cases not similarly situated. As for this case, because the circuit court did not assess whether Hunt could establish a substantial or significant possibility that, had Kopera's false testimony about his credentials been known at the time of his trial, the result of his trial may have been different, we order a remand so that the court may make that determination.
Because the circuit court will have the task of determining whether Hunt can demonstrate "a substantial or significant possibility that the result [of his trial] may have been different," CP § 8-301(a)(1)(i), we take this opportunity to offer guidance regarding a possible misunderstanding in some of our prior decisions applying the prejudice standard. In Yorke, 315 Md. 578, 556 A.2d 230, we set forth a bifurcated test for weighing the impact of newly discovered evidence: first, a court should determine whether the evidence is "material" to the outcome of the case, id. at 583, 556 A.2d at 232; and second, if so, whether there is "a substantial or significant possibility that the verdict of the trier of fact would have been affected." Id. at 588, 556 A.2d at 235. The origin of this bifurcated test was Stevenson v. State ("Stevenson II"), 299 Md. 297, 473 A.2d 450 (1984), in which we were asked, for the first time, what standard a defendant must meet to warrant the grant of a new trial on the ground of newly discovered evidence.
Stevenson had been convicted of first-degree murder of her husband and setting a fire while perpetrating a crime.
One of the principal issues in Stevenson's trial was the origin of the fire. According to the prosecution, Stevenson had set her husband on fire, while she claimed that the fire had started spontaneously. The trial devolved into a battle of experts. Id. at 299-300, 473 A.2d at 451. "Approximately forty witnesses testified for the state, including nine experts in the case in chief, and four experts on rebuttal," whereas the "defense called seventeen witnesses, including five experts." Id. at 300, 473 A.2d at 451.
Michaelson, the State's witness who falsified his credentials, had testified in rebuttal. Following a hearing, the trial court declared that it was convinced "beyond a reasonable doubt that the State presented a case without the testimony of Mr. Michaelson that overwhelmingly pointed to the guilt of the accused" and therefore denied Stevenson's motion. Id. at 301, 473 A.2d at 451. Stevenson appealed, and the Court of Special Appeals affirmed. The matter reached this Court following the grant of Stevenson's certiorari petition. Id.
The issue on appeal was what standard a trial court should apply in deciding whether to grant a new trial on the ground of newly discovered evidence. The rule then in effect, Rule 770(b), like its present-day counterpart, Rule 4-331(c), did not set forth expressly any standard "except to denote the exercise of discretion through the use of the word `may.'" Stevenson II, 299 Md. at 301, 473 A.2d at 451. We sidestepped the question, observing that, "because the trial judge expressly found ... that the state's evidence without Michaelson's testimony overwhelmingly pointed to" Stevenson's guilt, he had "implicitly concluded that the newly discovered evidence was not material to the outcome of the case." Id. at 301-02, 473 A.2d at 452. Concluding that materiality is "a threshold question," we declared that it "should be decided in the affirmative" before examining "the possible impact the newly discovered evidence would have on the outcome of the trial," and we affirmed but did not further define "material." Id. at 302, 473 A.2d at 452.
Then, in Yorke, 315 Md. 578, 556 A.2d 230, we were faced with the question we had sidestepped in Stevenson II and answered it: the standard a trial court should apply, in determining whether to grant or deny a motion for new trial on the ground of newly discovered evidence, is whether "there was a substantial or significant possibility that the verdict of the trier of fact would have been affected," had the newly discovered evidence been available at trial. Id. at 588, 556 A.2d at 235. That is the standard now codified in CP § 8-301(a)(1)(i). The only reference to "material" in that opinion was to uphold, under an abuse of discretion standard, the trial court's determination that the newly discovered
We elaborated briefly in Argyrou, supra, 349 Md. 587, 709 A.2d 1194, stating that for evidence to be "material," it "must be more than `merely cumulative or impeaching.'" Id. at 601, 709 A.2d at 1201 (quoting Jones v. State, 16 Md.App. 472, 477, 298 A.2d 483, 486 (1973)). Similar language appeared in Love, supra, 95 Md.App. 420, 621 A.2d 910, where our colleagues on the intermediate appellate court drew a distinction between "impeaching" and "merely impeaching" in the context of assessing "materiality." Id. at 432-33, 621 A.2d at 917. More recently, in Hunt I, 443 Md. 238, 116 A.3d 477, we disapproved this "overly rigid" framework. Id. at 263-64, 116 A.3d at 492.
We would be remiss if we failed to point out that the actual innocence statute was drafted with the specific understanding that the Yorke standard was well-established in Maryland law and applies, not only to motions for new trial on the ground of newly discovered evidence, but also to ineffective assistance claims, Bowers v. State, 320 Md. 416, 425-27, 578 A.2d 734, 738-39 (1990), and Brady claims (so long as they do not involve knowing use of perjured testimony by the prosecution). Yearby v. State, 414 Md. 708, 717-18, 997 A.2d 144, 149 (2010). Yet, neither ineffective assistance claims nor Brady claims are subject to a bifurcated test. Indeed, in the Brady context, the Supreme Court has said that "materiality" is co-extensive with the "reasonable probability" (i.e., "substantial or significant possibility") standard. Strickler v. Greene, 527 U.S. 263, 280-82, 119 S.Ct. 1936, 1948-49, 144 L. Ed. 2d 286, 301-02 (1999); Kyles v. Whitley, 514 U.S. 419, 433-34, 115 S.Ct. 1555, 1565, 131 L. Ed. 2d 490, 505 (1995). Because we can envision no instance in which newly discovered evidence satisfies the "substantial or significant possibility" test, but could be deemed not "material," we clarify that it is not necessary to conduct a "threshold" screening as suggested by Yorke. Weighing the effect of newly discovered evidence in an actual innocence proceeding involves substantially the same inquiry as determining prejudice in the context of an ineffective assistance claim or assessing whether Brady evidence is material.
Watts and Biran, JJ., concur.
Biran, J., concurring, joined by Watts, J.
Respectfully, I concur in the judgment reached by the Majority, but I am unable to join the Majority Opinion.
Whether any particular defense attorney exercised due diligence in a particular case where Joseph Kopera testified as an expert for the State turns on the specific facts and circumstances of that case. Rightfully so, the Majority criticizes what it refers to as the "Jackson presumption." See Maj. Op. at 99-100, 252 A.3d at 952. In Jackson v. State, 216 Md.App. 347, 365-66, 86 A.3d 97 (2014), the Court of Special Appeals held that, "[a]though there may have been reasons that counsel did not pursue an investigation into Mr. Kopera's credentials," the circuit court did not abuse
I agree with the Majority that a hearing judge may not decide the threshold diligence question in an actual innocence case based on Kopera's false testimony by employing the Jackson presumption, under which every attorney who failed to discover Kopera's fabrications is deemed to have failed to exercise due diligence. However, in my view, the Majority goes astray by adopting the diametrically opposite presumption that every defense attorney who failed to discover Kopera's falsehoods is deemed to have exercised due diligence.
Neither presumption should be the basis for determining whether an attorney could have discovered the evidence of Kopera's fabrications through the exercise of due diligence. Instead, I agree with Hunt's counsel in the actual innocence hearing, who, when asked by the circuit court whether it should be "standard operating procedure" for defense counsel to check the qualifications of every expert witness proffered by the State, replied that "[i]t would depend on the case. And every case is different." Although Kopera's fabrications may not vary from case to case, the circumstances that bear on a defense attorney's decision not to investigate Kopera's academic qualifications may well vary from case to case. Based on those differences, the same judge hearing two Kopera-based actual innocence cases may decide the threshold diligence question differently in each case. Viewed in this context, the Majority's concern about inconsistent diligence rulings in "Kopera cases," see Maj. Op. at 104-05, 252 A.3d at 955, is misplaced.
Seemingly anticipating concerns about its unprecedented elimination of the diligence showing, the Majority offers two points to try to ease such misgivings. First, the Majority states that "[p]arties in non-Kopera cases should be chary of transposing [the Majority's reasoning] in this case to other cases not similarly situated." Maj. Op. at 110, 252 A.3d at 959. Second, the Majority suggests that the diligence requirement will not be excused in cases where "specific knowledge possessed by or imputable to defense counsel... put him or her on inquiry notice that would trigger a reasonably competent attorney to look into Kopera's credentials." Id. at 104-05, 252 A.3d at 962; see also id. at 110, 252 A.3d at 959 (excluding from the Majority's holding cases where "particularized facts ... would have put defense counsel on inquiry notice of Kopera's fraud"). These points only further demonstrate that the Majority's new presumption is ill-advised.
First, despite the caveat, the Majority's holding may well prove difficult to limit to Kopera cases. Indeed, the Majority articulates no limiting principle to guide the lower courts in determining how many attorneys must have failed to discover a piece of evidence before the court should assume that none of the attorneys failed to exercise reasonable diligence. It offers only that "[t]his is (hopefully) a unique class of cases." Maj. Op. at 110, 252 A.3d at 959. That is little comfort to anyone who is concerned that the Majority's judicially-created exception to the diligence requirement will swallow the rule set forth in CP § 8-301(a)(2). In any future case involving a type of newly discovered evidence that applies to more than one past case, the first actual innocence petitioner to claim relief under CP § 8-301 will undoubtedly
Second, the Majority's suggestion that the diligence requirement will not be excused in cases where "specific knowledge possessed by or imputable to defense counsel ... put counsel on inquiry notice that would trigger a reasonably competent attorney to look into Kopera's credentials," Maj. Op. at 104-05, 252 A.3d at 955, necessarily alleviates a petitioner of the burden to establish due diligence and transfers the burden to the State to prove the facts giving rise to such inquiry notice. That is the case because, with the benefit of what may henceforth be known as the "Hunt presumption," no actual innocence petitioner will produce facts showing that trial counsel was on inquiry notice of a potential problem with Kopera's qualifications. It will be up to the State to find and introduce evidence that defense counsel was on such inquiry notice. This is contrary to the actual innocence statute, which states that "[a] petitioner in a proceeding under this section has the burden of proof." CP § 8-301(g); see also State v. Hunt, 443 Md. 238, 258, 116 A.3d 477 (2015) (in this Court's prior decision in this case, stating that it is the actual innocence petitioner who must convince a hearing judge that evidence concerning Kopera's fabrications could not have been discovered in time to move for a new trial); State v. Seward, 220 Md.App. 1, 19, 102 A.3d 798 (2014) (actual innocence petitioner "must show that there is newly discovered evidence that could not have been discovered in time to move for a new trial under Maryland Rule 4-331, ... a requirement known as `due diligence'") (some internal quotation marks and footnote omitted), rev'd on other grounds by Seward v. State, 446 Md. 171, 130 A.3d 478 (2016). Simply put, this Court is not free to override the General Assembly's placement of the burden of proof in an actual innocence proceeding on the petitioner and shift it to the State when the case under review is a "Kopera case."
Although the Majority goes too far in adopting a new presumption of due diligence in all Kopera cases, in the end, I agree that the judgment of the Court of Special Appeals should be reversed. Conducting the case-by-case analysis that should apply in all actual innocence cases, I believe that Hunt showed his trial counsel exercised reasonable diligence. Hunt's trial occurred in 1991, when Kopera had been a firearms examiner for Baltimore City for approximately 22 years. At the beginning of Kopera's testimony, Hunt's experienced, Baltimore-based trial counsel,
Kopera then testified about his qualifications, which included his false claims that he held "a degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Maryland and also an engineering degree from the Rochester Institute of Technology." At the conclusion of Kopera's direct examination, the trial judge asked defense counsel whether their cross-examinations of Kopera would be lengthy. Counsel for Hunt's co-defendant, Howard Cardin (also an experienced Baltimore criminal defense attorney), replied: "Lengthy? I can't imagine it being lengthy. I mean, what happens is, sometimes when you ask Joe a question, you think it's a one-word answer and he goes on for a few minutes. But beyond that, no, I don't think it'll be lengthy." In short, the record reflects that both defense counsel and the trial judge by Hunt's 1991 trial were well familiar with Kopera and accorded him significant respect as an expert witness, which are circumstances that may not be present in other cases.
In addition, Kopera's testimony was, to a significant extent, helpful to Hunt. This was a key part of Hunt's argument at the actual innocence hearing. Although Kopera linked the bullet that killed the victim, Sheldene Simon, with a .40 caliber Glock recovered in a car in which Hunt and his co-defendant were traveling, other aspects of Kopera's testimony helped Messrs. Polansky and Cardin develop the theory that an alternate perpetrator had killed Simon. Simon's murder was the third of four shootings that were referenced during Hunt's trial, all of which occurred over the course of eight days and within a mile-and-a-half of one another. On April 6, 1991, the home of Simon's girlfriend, Cherome Hines, was shot at while Simon was there. On April 10, the home of Anthony Payne was struck by gunfire. Less than an hour later, Simon was shot and killed in front of his home. And, on April 13, Payne was shot and killed in front of his home.
Kopera testified that the weapons used in the Simon homicide were also used in the shooting at Hines's home. Those weapons included not only the Glock recovered from the car in which Hunt and Johnson were traveling, but also two unrecovered nine-millimeter weapons. One of those weapons, according to Kopera, was a Taurus pistol that was also used in the Payne shooting. Mr. Polansky argued that there were "a lot of people" who had reason to kill Simon, and relied on Kopera's ballistics testimony to give substance to the defense's claim that Simon's killing was "a reaction" to the April 10 attempt to kill Payne, which Mr. Polansky claimed "had absolutely nothing to do with Ronnie Hunt." Mr. Polansky argued that the police "decided prematurely" that Hunt was guilty, and overlooked Payne and his associates as alternate suspects.
From my perspective, given the two-decade span during which Kopera had apparently testified without challenge to his qualifications, as well as Mr. Polansky's
Accordingly, I would reverse the judgment of the Court of Special Appeals, but for different reasons than those stated by the Majority.
Judge Watts has authorized me to state that she joins in this opinion.
Although the rule has been amended several times since then, none of those amendments has any bearing on this case.
On remand from the Supreme Court, the case was returned to the Court of Special Appeals for further consideration. In an unreported opinion, that court determined that Kulbicki was entitled to a writ of actual innocence because of the admission of dis-credited comparative bullet lead analysis. 2020 WL 41915. We denied the State's petition for certiorari. 468 Md. 235, 226 A.3d 1168 (2020).