Former Hagerstown man seeks to have conviction overturned

March 12, 2012|By DON AINES |

HAGERSTOWN — A man serving 45 years in prison for a 2004 shooting in Hagerstown was in Washington County Circuit Court again this week, this time seeking to have his conviction overturned because the state’s ballistics expert in his trial had false credentials.

Azaniah Blankumsee, 33, formerly of Hagerstown, was convicted of first-degree felony murder and other offenses in the March 14, 2004, shooting death of 19-year-old Jonathan M. Dennis of Waynesboro, Pa., at the Washington Gardens apartments.

The first-degree murder conviction was overturned by the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, and Blankumsee was resentenced in 2007 for the other convictions, which included four counts of second-degree attempted murder.

Blankumsee has now filed a petition for a “writ of actual innocence” with the circuit court due to the testimony of Joseph Kopera, his attorney Bernard W. Semler II said.

Kopera, who was head of the Maryland State Police firearms unit, committed suicide in 2007 after it was discovered that he falsified his credentials, according to a 2007 Baltimore Sun story.

Under Maryland law, a person convicted of a crime can file a writ of actual innocence if evidence is discovered that “creates a substantial or significant possibility that the result may have been different.”

Kopera’s death came weeks after the Innocence Project — a group of lawyers looking into cases of defendants they believed were wrongfully convicted — raised questions about his resume, including degrees he had not earned, the Sun reported.

Blankumsee appeared in court Monday, but Circuit Judge Daniel P. Dwyer granted Semler’s request to delay the hearing for several weeks.

Semler told Dwyer he had spoken with Deputy State’s Attorney Joseph Michael, “who was able to verify that the evidence is still available to be tested.”

Blankumsee’s original 2004 murder conviction resulted in a life sentence, which was reduced to 45 years after that conviction was reversed, and he was resentenced on the remaining charges, The Herald-Mail reported in 2007.

At Blankumsee’s trial, the state and defense both stipulated that Kopera was an expert in firearms and tool-mark comparison, the Court of Special Appeals wrote in a 2009 opinion that remanded the case back to circuit court.

Blankumsee asked for a new trial asserting “that the State’s case against him ‘depended almost entirely’ on Kopera’s testimony,” the ruling stated.

The prosecution and defense stipulated to what Kopera would have testified regarding ballistics evidence, but Kopera did not testify at the trial, Michael said Tuesday.

Kopera did testify in the trial of the man charged with fatally shooting Dennis, Tyshawn Jones of Hagerstown, The Herald-Mail reported in 2005. Blankumsee and Jones were charged with firing into a group of people at Washington Gardens, killing Dennis.

Jones also was convicted of first-degree murder, but that was overturned on appeal, and a jury convicted him of second-degree murder and other offenses in 2007, The Herald-Mail reported.

Jones was sentenced to 70 years in prison, The Herald-Mail reported.

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