Call for retrial hinges on ballistics experts

The Baltimore Sun

A Baltimore County police ballistics expert testified yesterday that a bullet fragment removed from a murder victim's head during an autopsy was so mutilated that he couldn't make any meaningful determinations about whether it had come from the off-duty revolver of the former police sergeant convicted of killing the woman.

The conclusions of firearms examiner Michael J. Thomas were essentially the same as those testified to 14 years ago by veteran ballistics expert Joseph Kopera, whose testimony has since been called into question with the discovery that he routinely lied on witness stands across Maryland about having college degrees that he never earned.

However, the measurements and findings that the two gun experts used in reaching their conclusions differed, according to ballistics reports and worksheets entered into evidence yesterday in court.

Kopera killed himself last month after being confronted about his false credentials by attorneys representing James A. Kulbicki, a 10-year veteran of the Baltimore Police Department who was twice convicted and sentenced to life in prison without parole in the shooting death of his mistress, whose body was found in Gunpowder Falls State Park in January 1993.

Kulbicki is asking a judge to overturn the sentence and grant him a new trial, in part because of Kopera's testimony. His is the first of what is expected to be many cases to include Kopera's testimony in a challenge to a criminal conviction.

Over the course of three days of hearings that are scheduled to continue today, Baltimore County Circuit Judge Kathleen G. Cox has heard hours of highly technical testimony - much of which has focused on the various markings left on bullets by the barrels of firearms.

Kopera testified at Kulbicki's trial that a bullet fragment recovered from the body of Gina Nueslein was from a large-caliber bullet - at least a .38 caliber - and that it could have been fired by the officer's off-duty revolver - a .38-caliber Smith & Wesson.

But in Kopera's worksheets, he characterized the bullet fragment as coming from a medium-caliber bullet. He also noted two visible "lands and grooves" - the rifling pattern on the inside of a gun barrel that leaves markings on a bullet as it travels through.

By comparing a bullet's markings with those on a test-fired bullet, firearms examiners can determine whether a particular bullet was - or wasn't - fired from a particular gun.

Thomas, the county police firearms examiner who recently retested ballistics evidence in the Kulbicki case at prosecutors' request, recorded different measurements.

He found only one visible land and groove and indicated that he could not determine the bullet fragment's caliber.

Describing it as the most deformed and mutilated bullet piece he has examined in his five years on the job, Thomas testified, "It has been hit so many times that the measurements you get off here are of no use."

As a result, Thomas testified that he could not determine whether the bullet fragment had been fired by any of three revolvers seized from Kulbicki's bedroom - including the one that prosecutors characterized at trial as the murder weapon.

Thomas acknowledged, however, during cross-examination that he had measured the markings on the bullet fragment and that if that pattern actually reflected the markings on the full-size bullet, Kulbicki's revolver could not have fired the fatal shot.

A gun expert for Kulbicki testified last week that he used Kopera's measurements from 1993 of the bullet fragments - as well as those of Thomas - in determining that the .38-caliber Smith & Wesson revolver could not have been used in the killing.



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