The U.S. Supreme Court reinstated Monday the life sentence of a former Baltimore police sergeant for killing his young mistress nearly two decades ago, after Maryland's highest court overturned his first-degree murder conviction last year.
James Kulbicki was convicted in the 1993 execution-style murder of Gina Nueslein, a 22-year-old Royal Farms clerk. Her body was found in Gunpowder Falls State Park the weekend before the two were scheduled to appear at a court hearing over child support.
The Maryland Court of Appeals had granted Kulbicki a new trial on the grounds his lawyers should have challenged the bullet analysis that implicated him in the killing. After being used for 40 years, the lead-testing method was found to be unreliable and abandoned years after Kulbicki's conviction.
In its reversal, the Supreme Court noted that only one piece of research existed at the time that could have cast doubt on the forensics method, which wasn't controversial then.
The Maryland court ruling suggested Kulbicki's attorneys should have found the "needle in a haystack," even when they had "reason to doubt there is any needle there," the justices wrote in their ruling.
"The Court of Appeals offered no support for its conclusion that Kulbicki's defense attorneys were constitutionally required to predict the demise" of the bullet analysis method, the Supreme Court said. "Instead, the court indulged in the 'natural tendency to speculate as to whether a different trial strategy might have been more successful.'"
Nueslein's sister, Jennifer Getz, said she was comforted by the Supreme Court's ruling, which will allow her family to avoid having to see Kulbicki again in court.
"We just all have the same feeling — just relief of being spared the ordeal of having to relive Gina's death," she said Monday. "Every time we have to come to court, it relives the murder and the gruesomeness of the whole crime."
An attorney for Kulbicki could not be reached to comment Monday.
A park ranger found Nueslein's body in a remote area on Jan. 10, 1993. Investigators determined she had been shot at point-blank range and her body dumped in the park, and an eyewitness saw Kulbicki in his truck in the area around the time of the killing.
Kulbicki was charged with the crime and convicted in 1993, but the case was retried two years later because the judge hadn't given him a chance to rebut the testimony of two state witnesses. For the retrial, Baltimore County prosecutors marshaled an array of forensic evidence against him, including DNA and ballistics analysis.
Ernest Peele, the FBI agent who testified for the prosecution, told the jury that a bullet from Kulbicki's gun was not an exact match to fragments found in the shooting, but the chemical composition matched, indicating they were the same type of bullet and could have been from the same box of ammunition.
"Because we don't have any witnesses who actually saw the defendant put the gun to [the victim's] head, we fill in the gaps," a prosecutor said in closing arguments, according to court records. "And the way we fill them in is with forensic science."
Peele was a co-author of the 1991 report that first raised a question about the ballistics method. It noted that bullets with the same lead composition had been found in different packages.
The Court of Appeals ruled in a separate case in 2006 that the method was flawed and shouldn't be used as evidence in criminal cases.
Kulbicki's attorneys didn't raise the report's finding during Peele's cross-examination. The Maryland appeals court held that was tantamount to the defense being "unconstitutionally ineffective," erring so seriously that they deprived Kulbicki of a fair trial.
The Supreme Court noted that Peele, in his 1991 report, wrote off the finding as coincidence and concluded the ballistics testing was valid. It wasn't until more research was done that the test was debunked.
"[W]ould effective counsel really have brought to the attention of the jury a report whose conclusion was that [the method] was a valid investigative technique in cases just like Kulbicki's?" the court asked.
The Supreme Court justices also took issue with the Maryland court's assertion that the report "was available" to Kulbicki's defense attorneys. The appeals court found the report online nearly 20 years after the trial, the justices noted, among a compilation of studies that were "distributed to various public libraries in 1994."
"But which ones? And in an era of card catalogues, not a worldwide web, what efforts would counsel have had to expend to find the compilation?" the Supreme Court wrote.
The Supreme Court's ruling likely closes the door on scores of similar appeals of other shooting convictions from the same era, which could have been overturned based on defense attorneys failing to raise the flaws in the ballistics testing.
"Counsel did not perform deficiently by dedicating their time and focus to elements of the defense that did not involve poking methodological holes in a then-uncontroversial mode of ballistics analysis," the Supreme Court wrote.
Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh said the Supreme Court's decision restores the integrity of Kulbicki's earlier conviction and "sends a clear signal that the closure delivered to a family by a verdict should only be undone in exceptional circumstances."
"This case did not present those circumstances, as the Court clearly noted," Frosh said in a statement.
The Constitution's "sacred promise of effective representation for every defendant does not justify using the seductive lens of hindsight to second guess trial and tactical decisions years after those judgments are made," Deputy Attorney General Thiru Vignarajah added.