A mystery lies behind firearms expert’s suicide
Veteran firearms examiner Joseph Kopera routinely brought to court an oversize wooden bullet as a prop, taking it apart and showing jurors precisely how lead projectiles and the weapons that fire them worked together in so many murder cases.
He liked to walk around the courtroom, explaining the path of bullets, the pump-action mechanism of some firearms and how an accused gunman could have stuffed a sawed-off shotgun into a seemingly too-small shopping bag, just as prosecutors alleged.
Asked to explain his credentials -- where he learned his specialty and how he knew what he did -- Kopera was, at least in the early days, equally clear with juries, a former Baltimore prosecutor recalled.
“He always said on the witness stand: ‘There is no degree in ballistics examination. You learn it on the job,’ ” said Brian Murphy, who regularly called the forensics expert as a witness in murder and shooting cases in the 1980s.
Such recollections -- of a hard-working man who presented the technical findings of his field with a certain flair -- have people who knew Kopera shaking their heads at the notion that he would throw it all away by falsely claiming to have college degrees that were not necessary for his job.
“None of it makes sense,” said Dr. Ann Dixon, a retired deputy chief state medical examiner.
Not only were advanced degrees not required of a police firearms examiner, but Kopera had an impeccable reputation without them, Dixon and others said.
Many lawyers, police officers and others in the region’s law enforcement community said they were saddened and shaken by news that Kopera killed himself March 1 after being confronted with evidence that he had falsified his credentials.
Michele Nethercott, chief of a unit of state public defenders that questioned Kopera a few weeks ago, said he not only claimed in court to have degrees that he did not earn, but also forged at least one document that he offered to justify his qualifications.
That revelation has spurred reviews of Kopera’s work by the state police and by state and federal prosecutors and prompted defense lawyers to predict that new trials could be ordered for some of the hundreds of people he helped convict over his 37-year career.
State police investigators learned while looking into the circumstances surrounding Kopera’s death that the lawyers had confronted him.
Kopera, 61, a Baltimore Polytechnic Institute high school graduate who had completed a year of college at the University of Baltimore, died of a self-inflicted gunshot on the first day of his sudden retirement.
His wife returned home from work to find him dead in the bedroom, a Baltimore County police report says. The couple, who had been married more than 30 years, had two adult children and a grandchild.
Kopera spent 21 years in the Baltimore Police Department crime laboratory before joining the state police in 1991. He was promoted nine years later to supervisor of the firearms and tool marks unit and handled cases in each of Maryland’s 24 jurisdictions, Delaware, Pennsylvania and Virginia.
“He was the best ballistics expert I ever used and one of the top three experts in any field,” said James O’C. Gentry Jr., a former Baltimore County prosecutor.
Dixon, the former deputy chief medical examiner, described Kopera as “friendly, outgoing and always helpful.” Prosecutors and defense attorneys recalled him as an entertaining, engaging courtroom witness in a field where testimony could quickly become a dry, complicated dissertation.
“If you’re in a technical part of a trial, unless you can keep jurors’ attention, you’re going to lose them,” Gentry said.
Many experts do not feel comfortable stepping off the witness stand during their testimony, but Kopera did not hesitate.
“He liked to stand in the well of the courtroom and sometimes right at the jurors’ railing,” Gentry recalled. “I’d say, ‘Mr. Kopera, can you explain such and such to the jurors?’ And he’d just take over.”
Sharon A.H. May, a former city prosecutor who is now a defense lawyer, described Kopera as her “most entertaining and informative witness” -- and so knowledgeable that she continued to call him with questions after he left the Baltimore Police Department for the state police.
She remembered Kopera’s crucial contribution in the trial of a man accused of using a sawed-off shotgun in a killing. The gun was never recovered, and May worried that jurors wouldn’t believe that such a weapon would fit into a Payless shoe store shopping bag full of clothes, as prosecutors alleged the gunman had done.
“Joe got a sawed-off shotgun, a Payless shoe bag and some clothes. It was one of those things where a picture is worth a thousand words. You say ‘sawed-off shotgun’ and you think it’s not going to fit into a plastic bag. But yes, indeed, it did.”
Those on the police side of the criminal justice system had equally high praise for Kopera.
“There’s a saying in homicide: ‘The chips fall where they fall,’ ” said Gary D’Addario, a retired Baltimore police major and former homicide commander. “It means, basically, honesty prevails.”
D’Addario said he was certain that Kopera’s work reflected that principle. “They can review all the cases they want,” he said. “But I believe firmly that when Joe went to court, his ballistics were 100% accurate.”
David Simon, a former Baltimore Sun reporter, encountered Kopera during the year he spent with the Baltimore homicide unit in 1988 for a book he wrote on the experience.
“I’m not sure I believe for a moment that he wasn’t legitimately comparing bullets down on the fourth floor [of police headquarters] all those years,” said Simon, now a writer and producer of the HBO series “The Wire.” “This was not a guy who was winging it.”
Simon said he saw Kopera disappoint homicide detectives with news that a bullet from a crime scene or autopsy did not match a gun taken off a suspect as often as his analysis elated them. The evenhanded approach earned him the nickname Joe “No Compare ‘em” Kopera.
“I heard a couple detectives tease him when a bullet and gun didn’t compare, meaning they didn’t match -- ‘Oh come on, how many .38s do I have to seize to get the right one?’ ” Simon said.
Like others interviewed after Kopera’s death, D’Addario, the former city homicide commander, said he struggled to make sense of Kopera’s embellished qualifications and his suicide. He recalled speaking at a University of Baltimore lecture once with Kopera and hearing two college degrees mentioned during Kopera’s introduction.
“I can only assume that he felt that it was something he needed as an introduction, in his mind,” D’Addario said. “The sad thing is that he didn’t have to do that at all. His reputation was outstanding.”