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State v. Hunt

Court of Appeals of Maryland

June 18, 2015

STATE OF MARYLAND
v.
RONNIE A. HUNT, JR. STATE OF MARYLAND
v.
KEVIN HARDY

Barbera, C.J., Harrell, Battaglia, Greene, Adkins, McDonald, Watts, JJ.

Harrell, J.

On 9 March 2007, Baltimore Sun reporter Jennifer McMenamin ("McMenamin") reported alarming questions about the academic qualifications of a high-ranking Maryland law enforcement ballistics expert named Joseph Kopera ("Kopera") (the "2007 Article").[1] McMenamin wrote that Kopera lied allegedly, as an expert witness for the prosecution, about his credentials and qualifications in trials in Maryland for over twenty years. The 2007 Article suggested that prosecutors around the state "will likely be dealing with fallout from the investigation [into Kopera's qualifications] for years." That predicted fallout continues to rain-down in the two cases we discuss together today.[2]

Pursuant to Maryland Code (2001, 2008 Repl. Vol, 2014 Cum. Supp.), Criminal Procedure Article, § 8-301, Ronnie A. Hunt, Jr. ("Hunt"), and Kevin Hardy ("Hardy") (collectively, "Respondents"), both incarcerated currently, filed in 2011 and 2012, respectively, Petitions for Writ of Actual Innocence in their unrelated cases. Both alleged that newly discovered evidence relative to Kopera, who testified in their trials as a prosecution witness, created a substantial or significant possibility that the outcomes (convictions) in their respective 1991 and 1989 trials may have been different (had Kopera not lied) and that such evidence could not have been discovered in time for them to move timely for a new trial pursuant to Maryland Rule 4-331.[3] Their petitions characterized the questions about Kopera's qualifications as "newly discovered evidence" that warranted reversals of their convictions and/or new trials.[4] The Circuit Court for Baltimore City denied their petitions without a hearing. On direct appeal to the Court of Special Appeals, the intermediate appellate court reversed in both instances the rulings of the Circuit Court and remanded for further proceedings. Today we affirm the judgments of the Court of Special Appeals, and, in considered dicta, provide guidance on remand for the hearings and evaluation of petitions for writ of actual innocence.

I. Facts

A. Ronnie A. Hunt, Jr.

Following a jury trial spanning several days in September of 1991, Ronnie A. Hunt, Jr. ("Hunt") was convicted on 25 September 1991 in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City of first-degree murder and use of a handgun in the commission of a crime of violence. The jury found that Hunt, along with his co-defendant, Harry Johnson, III, on 10 April 1991 shot to death Sheldene Simon on the front lawn of the victim's home in Baltimore during a gunfight involving multiple shooters. Hunt was sentenced to life imprisonment for murder, plus a consecutive twenty years for the handgun offense. Hunt's convictions were affirmed in 1993 by the Court of Special Appeals on direct appeal in an unreported opinion.

Hunt filed on 8 April 1997 a Petition for Post-Conviction Relief, which was denied by the Circuit Court on 19 August 1997. Hunt filed on 22 September 1997 an Application for Leave to Appeal, which was denied by the Court of Special Appeals on 23 January 1998. Hunt filed pro se on 31 January 2011 an Amended Petition for Writ of Actual Innocence (the "Hunt Amended Petition" or "Hunt's Amended Petition") in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City.[5] In the Amended Petition he set out the procedural history of his case and claimed that his federal Constitutional Rights to due process and equal protection of the law afforded under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments were denied him "based on false evidence." Hunt alleged the following, under a heading titled "NEWLY DISCOVERED EVIDENCE":

In 2007 it was unveiled by the Office of the Public Defender Innocence Project and the Maryland State Police that Joseph Kopera, reportedly an expert in ballistics, had in fact testified and lied under oath about his academic credentials for years, and probably falsified evidence as well. At the time of Kopera's reported death as a result of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, he was employed with the Maryland State Police, after being employed with the Baltimore City Police Department for approximately 21 years. Kopera was the lynchpin in the State's case, in which [Hunt] was convicted based solely on the testimony of Kopera, who has since become known as a liar and fraud.

(minor alterations added). Later, in a section of Hunt's Amended Petition titled "STATEMENT OF FACTS, " Hunt alleged the following:

A number of inconsistencies in Kopera's trial testimony in several or more cases regarding his academic credentials prompted an investigation or background check on Kopera by Ms. Michele Nethercott, chief attorney, out of the Office of the Public Defender Innocence Project. That also led to a subsequent investigation by the Maryland State Police, which unveiled some very troubling facts, that Kopera had been "lying" about his academic credentials for years, all while testifying under oath in countless court rooms in Baltimore City, the State of Maryland, and perhaps, state and federal courts in Virginia, Delaware, and Pennsylvania. It has been proven that Kopera wasn't only a liar, but a fraud as well. . . .

(minor alterations added).

Hunt argued that Kopera's testimony in his capacity as the State's ballistics expert was the State's "only evidence" against him and "the lynch [sic] pin in the State's case." Hunt reproduced a portion of the trial transcript in his case where Kopera discussed his (fraudulent) qualifications.[6] He reproduced then portions of the trial transcript where Kopera discussed a bullet specimen recovered from Simon's body, a semiautomatic pistol, and Kopera's process of "match[ing]" the two. Hunt noted that the State had not produced any DNA, fingerprints, or eye witnesses who placed him at the scene of the murder, and so, "without the false testimony of [Kopera], regarding both credentials and the murder weapon, it is highly unlikely that the State would have proven their case against [Hunt] beyond a reasonable doubt." Hunt surmised penultimately:

Every factual finding made by the jury hinged upon a determination that Kopera testified credibly. If Kopera's fake credentials and/or false testimony had been known, however, it is reasonably probable that the outcome of the trial would have been different[, ] because his testimony probably would not have been as credible.

Hunt concluded by requesting, among other things, "a reversal of his conviction and unconditional release, otherwise, a new trial" and that "a prompt hearing be set in this matter."

The Circuit Court denied Hunt's Amended Petition, without a hearing, on 15 February 2011 because the petition "fail[ed] to state a claim or assert grounds for which relief may be granted pursuant to [§ 8-301(a)]." Hunt filed then a motion for reconsideration on 3 March 2011, which was denied by the Circuit Court on 7 March 2011.

B. Kevin Hardy

Following a jury trial, Kevin Hardy ("Hardy") was convicted on 22 March 1991 in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City of first-degree murder, use of a handgun in a crime of violence, and unlawfully wearing, carrying, and transporting a handgun. The jury found that Hardy, along with his co-defendant Ronald Nance, shot to death Aaron Carroll and shot and wounded Sandra Keve in the Flag House housing projects in Baltimore City on 3 April 1990. Hardy was sentenced to life imprisonment, plus forty-five years. Hardy's convictions were affirmed by the Court of Special Appeals on direct appeal and ultimately the Court of Appeals. Nance and Hardy v. State, 93 Md.App. 475, 613 A.2d 428 (1992), aff'd, 331 Md. 549, 629 A.2d 633 (1993).

Hardy filed on 11 March 1997 a Petition for Post-Conviction Relief, which was denied on 26 March 1998. Hardy followed that with an Application for Leave to Appeal in the Court of Special Appeals, which was denied in an unreported, per curiam opinion on 25 June 1998. Hardy filed pro se on 31 July 2012 a Petition for Writ of Actual Innocence (the "Hardy Petition" or "Hardy's Petition") in the Circuit Court. Hardy's Petition reproduced the list of "requirements" from § 8-301 in numerical list form and marshalled various allegations and arguments in subheadings under each called-out statutory requirement. Under a heading titled "Grounds, " Hardy alleged the following:

The State's key witness, Joseph Kopera, was an imposter. Kopera lied relentlessly about his credentials to the jury in [Hardy's] case. And, Kopera manufactured his testimony to bolster the State's case-in-chief against Petitioner.

(minor alterations added). Kopera was called by the State to examine four bullets removed from the victim's body. Hardy reproduced portions of the transcript of his trial where Kopera testified regarding his qualifications as a ballistics expert.[7] Hardy argued that, in light of an eye witness's arguably inconsistent testimony, Kopera's testimony "was desperately needed and used in[] [the State's] case to bolster the State's theory of two shooters of the victim . . . ." Hardy maintained that Kopera "falsified himself in order to impress upon [the jury] the untrue accusation from the State, that [Hardy] planned and participated in the killing of Mr. Carroll." In a subheading concerning "newly discovered evidence, " Hardy characterized Kopera as "a ballistic expert imposter." In support of his argument, Hardy attached to his Petition a press release from the Department of Maryland State Police, dated 8 March 2007 ("State Police Press Release"), announcing concern over Kopera's scholastic credentials, a copy of the 2007 Article, and an Affidavit of Suzanne Drouet in which Ms. Drouet recounted her discovery of Kopera's misrepresentations. Finally, Hardy concluded by "emphatically requesting/seeking" a hearing on the petition "to prove that Mr. Joseph Kopera's perjured testimony, absolutely, affected the judgment of the jury in [Hardy's] case" and requested further that the Circuit Court grant him a new trial or other relief as deemed appropriate.

The Circuit Court denied, without a hearing, Hardy's petition on 14 August 2012.

C. All Together Now

Hunt and Hardy appealed individually to the Court of Special Appeals, claiming that the Circuit Court[8] erred in denying their petitions without a hearing. In separate unreported opinions, the intermediate appellate court reasoned that Douglas v. State, 423 Md. 156, 31 A.3d 250 (2011), where we concluded a hearing was warranted, presented a very similar factual scenario to the cases at hand. Accordingly, the appellate court ...


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