Family spared third ordeal

The Baltimore Sun

After sitting through two painful trials for the man accused of shooting his daughter in the head and killing her, Joe Nueslein was relieved.

"I just thank God this is all over with," he said that November evening in 1995 when former Baltimore police Sgt. James A. Kulbicki was convicted of first-degree murder for the second time. "And that I'll never have to go through that again."

He couldn't have been more wrong.

The Nueslein family found themselves back in court last year as a new team of defense attorneys challenged just about every piece of evidence that tied Kulbicki to the killing of Gina Nueslein, 22, a convenience-store clerk with whom the married man had an affair and a child.

The judge's decision not to grant Kulbicki a third trial has brought a new wave of relief for the Nueslein family. But as they marked the 15th anniversary of her death this month, they also expressed frustration that the continued appeals have forced them to repeatedly remember the worst parts of her death.

"The thing that people don't realize is that every time we go back to court and hear about it, it feels like it was yesterday," said Jennifer Getz, her younger sister. "It's not that we don't think about her. We do - every day. But we don't think about the violence of it. That's the part that's hard. That's not fair to us."

Gina Marie Nueslein lived at home with her parents, Joe and Geraldine Nueslein, her two sisters and her young son in Baltimore's Belair-Edison neighborhood.

She was a night owl who liked to stay up late, playing cards with her sister, talking on the phone with friends and watching Judge Joseph Wapner settle disputes on The People's Court.

Asked what his daughter had imagined for herself in life, Joe Nueslein recently said, "If I had to guess, I'd say she wanted to get married, have children and be a housewife."

Gina Nueslein worked the overnight shift as a waitress at a Horn & Horn Restaurant - where she met Kulbicki when she was 16 - and later took a job as a cashier at a Royal Farms store about a half-mile from home.

Her family made no secret of their disdain for Kulbicki - an arrogant cop, they say, who was 14 years her senior.

Kulbicki testified at his first trial in 1993 that he and Gina Nueslein began dating in 1989 when she was 19 years old. Her family says their relationship had run much longer - five or six years - and that the police officer told Gina that he was separated from his wife and living with his brother.

He was not.

At the time of Kulbicki's arrest, he was living in Highlandtown with his wife, Connie, and their children. Connie Kulbicki has stood by her husband and maintains his innocence.

"You had the most naive girl you had on this earth with the biggest conniver on the planet," Joe Nueslein said of his daughter and her boyfriend. "She would believe anything anyone told her, and he could talk a starving dog off a meat wagon."

Gina Nueslein had a baby boy in September 1991. When Kulbicki balked at providing money for the child, she decided in September 1992 to seek court-ordered child support.

"All she wanted from him was health insurance" for her son, Joe Nueslein recalled recently. "She'd say, 'I don't care about his money. I just want to put him on health insurance.'"

The case was scheduled for a Jan. 13, 1993, hearing.

But on Jan. 10, a park ranger found Gina Nueslein's body near the archery range in a remote section of Gunpowder Falls State Park. She had been shot in the head.

Kulbicki, a nine-year police veteran, was convicted in October 1993 of first-degree murder. An appeals court overturned that conviction, however, ruling that the trial judge erred in not allowing Kulbicki to rebut the testimony of two state witnesses.

A jury convicted Kulbicki a second time in 1995, and he was again sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

The Nuesleins thought their ordeal was over.

Then they found out in 2006 that a new team of lawyers - a group of public defenders assigned to the state's Innocence Project - had taken up Kulbicki's case. The lawyers, who represent defendants who they believe have been wrongfully convicted, were asking for a third trial.

The request was based, in part, on the discovery that a longtime police gun expert had lied at Kulbicki's trials and in courtrooms across Maryland about having college degrees and certifications that he never earned. During a five-day hearing in April, defense expert witnesses told the judge that firearms examiner Joseph Kopera's testimony in the case was inconsistent with his reports and notes, and that his conclusions were incorrect.

Kulbicki's lawyers also attacked the testimony of a woman who said she saw Kulbicki at the park where Gina's body was found; evidence concerning DNA and serology tests on blood and bone fragments; and the results of a comparative lead bullet test that the FBI no longer uses because of its unreliability.

The Nuesleins came to court in Towson every day, and say they were preparing for a third trial, debating whether they would stay overnight in Towson rather than driving back home each night to Pennsylvania, where they now live.

"You get worried," said Joe Nueslein, who, with his wife, has raised their grandson. "We didn't think he should get another trial the first time."

But then they got the call.

On Jan. 2, Baltimore County Circuit Judge Kathleen G. Cox denied Kulbicki's request for a new trial.

Defense attorneys say they plan to appeal the ruling. But the Nuesleins were relieved to be able to honor Gina and the anniversary of her death without a third trial looming.

"It's a rough period for us every year," Joe Nueslein said of the six days between the date Gina disappeared and the date of her burial.

"There are periods of crying and praying, but it doesn't do any good," Geraldine Nueslein said. "People say, 'Pray, pray.' But she's still not here. That's what matters."


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