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When Can a Criminal Defendant Ask for a New Trial Based on “Newly Discovered Evidence”?

What happens if a person is convicted of a crime but evidence is discovered later that casts doubt on that conviction? Under the rules governing criminal trials in Maryland, the defendant may ask for a new trial or other relief, but they must do so within a very strict time frame–typically one year after their conviction becomes final after the exhaustion of any direct appeal. However, state law also permits a defendant to raise a claim of “actual innocence” at any time if they can show the newly discovered evidence “could not have been discovered in time to move for a new trial” under the one-year rule.

Court of Appeals Announces Special Rule for “Kopera Cases”

In 2007, the Baltimore Sun published an article about Joseph Kopera, a ballistics expert who frequently testified in Maryland criminal trials. Kopera’s testimony literally helped the state convict thousands of defendants between 1991 and 2007. But according to the Sun, Kopera had lied about his credentials. When these allegations surfaced, Kopera committed suicide. Later news reports said Kopera also apparently forged his colleagues’ signatures on lab documents meant to scrutinize his own work.

In response to these revelations, many defendants who were convicted based on Kopera’s testimony sought relief under the newly discovered evidence and actual innocence rules. One such case, Hunt v. State, was recently heard by the Maryland Court of Appeals. The Court took this opportunity to clarify how trial courts should handle this and other “Kopera cases” moving forward.

The defendant in this case was convicted of first-degree murder involving the use of a handgun. The defendant’s trial took place in 1991. Kopera testified as the state’s ballistics expert. In 2010, the defendant filed an actual innocence petition after learning about the 2007 Sun report while in prison. A Maryland circuit court declined the petition without a hearing. This prompted the Court of Appeals to order a hearing.

But even after the hearing, the circuit court still denied relief, reasoning that the defendant should have been able to discover Kopera’s falsified credentials by exercising “due diligence” at the time and that no “Herculean effort” was required to expose the fraud back in 1991.

This prompted a second round of appeals. This time, the Court of Appeals held that in this case and and all “similarly situated” ones involving the Kopera issue, a circuit could should assume that “due diligence did not require [the defendant] to unearth the unfortunate charade” at the time of trial, unless there were “particularized facts” that put that specific defendant and their attorney on notice. The Court was careful to limit this holding to the Kopera cases.

Contact Prince George’s County, Maryland, Criminal Defense Lawyer Robert Castro Today

This article has been provided by the Law Office of Robert Castro. For more information or questions contact our office to speak to an experienced lawyer at (301) 705-5137.