Anyone who’s watched enough episodes of the courtroom procedural shows on television has inevitably seen it at some point: the episode in which the prosecution’s star expert witness is, at some point, exposed as having lied on the witness stand. This situation of expert witnesses lying on the stand does occur in real life, and, when it does, it is important to understand what that means for a criminal case in Maryland. The state’s Court of Appeals recently ruled that, when a defendant discovers after a trial’s end that one of the state’s experts lied about his credentials, the trial court must analyze what the jury would have done had they known that the expert lied, rather than simply analyze what the jury would have done if they’d never heard the falsehoods.
Robert McGhie stood trial in Montgomery County for murder, attempted murder, armed robbery, and gun crimes in the robbery of the American Mailbox store in Silver Spring. During McGhie’s trial, the prosecution brought in a ballistics expert to give testimony that would strengthen its argument that McGhie had participated in the crime, along with the robbery’s other perpetrators. The expert testified that the bullets and shell casings found at the American Mailbox robbery scene matched bullets and shell casings found at another crime scene in which McGhie was involved.
That expert, Joseph Kopera, had worked for the Maryland State Police Ballistics Laboratory for three years and, before that, had spent 22 years at the Baltimore City Crime Lab in the Ballistics Unit. Additionally, though, Kopera testified that he had degrees in engineering from the University of Maryland and the Rochester Institute of Technology and that he was a graduate of the FBI Academy in the field of ballistics.
After the trial was over, McGhie discovered that none of Kopera’s academic claims was true. He filed a petition with the trial court, asking the judge to throw out his conviction, based upon Kopera’s falsehoods. The trial judge ruled against McGhie, concluding that, even if Kopera had testified 100% truthfully, there was no reasonable chance that the outcome of the case wouldn’t have been the same. The expert’s testimony was not the centerpiece of the state’s case, and had Kopera simply testified solely as to his professional credentials and omitted mentioning the universities and the FBI Academy, the jury would have given the expert’s testimony roughly the same weight that it did.
McGhie appealed that ruling, but the Court of Special Appeals affirmed, leaving him to take his case to the state’s highest court. That court, as an initial matter, decided to resolve the issue of how courts should treat newly discovered evidence like the evidence unearthed in McGhie’s case. The court agreed with McGhie that judges should analyze how they believe the jury would have responded if they had known the evidence discovered only after the trial’s end. In McGhie’s case, that meant the judge should assess whether a jury might have given Kopera’s testimony less weight, or cast it aside completely, if they had known that the expert lied on the stand about his academic accomplishments.
In this case, the trial judge had decided that, even if the jury had known about the falsehoods, they still would have convicted McGhie. The state offered extensive testimony from other perpetrators, as well as eyewitnesses who saw McGhie’s gun and heard McGhie resolve to rob the store. With all this testimony, it was not unreasonable for the trial judge to conclude that the jury would have convicted McGhie regardless of their knowledge (or lack thereof) of Kopera’s falsehoods.
Judge Irma Raker wrote a dissent in the case. She did not dissent to state that McGhie should have received a new trial. Instead, she stated in her opinion that a procedural error should have prevented the courts from hearing McGhie’s request at all. The convicted man never stated that he was actually innocent of the charges for which he was convicted. A claim of actual innocence is a pre-requisite for the type of relief McGhie sought from the courts, and, without such a statement, the courts should have dismissed his petition rather than rejecting it on the merits, Judge Raker asserted.
In a criminal case, there are many unusual or unique circumstances that can arise, and it is important to have experienced legal counsel on your side who will know the benefit these circumstances will (or won’t) offer for your case. Maryland criminal defense attorney Anthony A. Fatemi has defended the accused in Maryland for many years and can provide you or your loved one with the skilled defense representation you need. To put this office’s resources to work for you, contact us at 301-519-2801 or via our online form.
More blog posts:
Maryland Court of Appeals Rules in Favor of Petition for Post Conviction Relief, Maryland Criminal Lawyer Blog, Feb. 5, 2016
Maryland Court Reviews Allegations of an “Illegal Sentence” in Criminal Case, Maryland Criminal Lawyer Blog, Jan. 22, 2016