SILENT INJUSTICE A Twist to the Left

A Murder Conviction Torn Apart by a Bullet

Information from Joseph Kopera, who worked as a firearms expert for the Maryland State Police, was used to convict James A. Kulbicki of murder.
Information from Joseph Kopera, who worked as a firearms expert for the Maryland State Police, was used to convict James A. Kulbicki of murder. (2000 Photo By Gail Burton -- Associated Press)
By John Solomon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 19, 2007

Former Baltimore police sergeant James A. Kulbicki stared silently from the defense table as the prosecutor held up his off-duty .38-caliber revolver and assured jurors that science proved the gun had been used to kill Kulbicki's mistress.

"I wonder what it felt like, Mr. Kulbicki, to have taken this gun, pressed it to the skull of that young woman and pulled the trigger, that cold steel," the prosecutor said during closing arguments.

Prosecutors had linked the weapon to Kulbicki through forensic science. Maryland's top firearms expert said that the gun had been cleaned and that its bullets were consistent in size with the one that killed the victim. The state expert could not match the markings on the bullets to Kulbicki's gun. But an FBI expert took the stand to say that a science that matches bullets by their lead content had linked the fatal bullet to Kulbicki.

The jurors were convinced, and in 1995 Kulbicki was convicted of first-degree murder in the death of his 22-year-old girlfriend. He was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

For a dozen years, Kulbicki sat in state prison, saddled with the image of the calculating killer portrayed in the 1996 made-for-TV movie "Double Jeopardy."

Then the scientific evidence unraveled.

Earlier this year, the state expert committed suicide, leaving a trail of false credentials, inaccurate testimony and lab notes that conflicted with what he had told jurors. Two years before, the FBI crime lab had discarded the bullet-matching science that it had used to link Kulbicki to the crime.

Now a judge in Baltimore County is weighing whether to overturn Kulbicki's conviction in a legal challenge that could have ripple effects across Maryland. The case symbolizes growing national concerns about just how far forensic experts are willing to go to help prosecutors secure a conviction.

"If this could happen to my client, who was a cop who worked within this justice system, what does it say about defendants who know far less about the process and may have far fewer resources to uncover evidence of their innocence that may have been withheld by the prosecution or their scientific experts?" said Suzanne K. Drouet, a former Justice Department lawyer who took on Kulbicki's case as a public defender.

Prosecutors are fighting to uphold Kulbicki's conviction, arguing that there is still plenty of evidence that proves his guilt.

"While much of the evidence against the petitioner falls into the category of circumstantial evidence, the state presented a mountain of evidence, both direct and circumstantial," prosecutors argued in a motion earlier this year opposing Kulbicki's request for a new trial.

Police had lots of circumstantial evidence. A jacket with the victim's blood on the sleeve was found hanging in Kulbicki's closet. And four bone chips and a bullet fragment were found in his truck. Tiny drops of blood also were found in the truck, and one spot of blood on the holster of his off-duty weapon. But the blood spots were so small and their quality so poor that they could not be matched to the victim.

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