Former Hagerstown man seeks to have murder conviction overturned

September 10, 2012|By DON AINES |

A former Hagerstown man in prison for his role in the 2004 fatal shooting of a Pennsylvania man was in Washington County Circuit Court on Monday seeking to have his conviction overturned because the ballistics expert in the case falsified his credentials.

Azaniah Blankumsee, 34, was convicted of first-degree murder and other offenses in the March 14, 2004, shooting death of 19-year-old Jonathan Dennis of Waynesboro, Pa., at Washington Gardens apartments.

The murder conviction was overturned by the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, but Blankumsee was resentenced to 45 years in prison on the other counts, including attempted second-degree murder and use of a handgun in a violent crime.

Blankumsee’s attorney, Bernard W. Semler II, argued that had the jury in his client’s 2004 trial known that ballistics expert Joseph Kopera falsified his credentials, it could have created a substantial possibility of a different outcome.

Kopera, who headed the Maryland State Police firearms unit, committed suicide in 2007 shortly after it was discovered he did not have some of the degrees and certifications he claimed.

Kopera did not testify at Blankumsee’s trial, but the defense and state stipulated he was an expert in firearms and tool mark comparison, the Court of Special Appeals wrote in a 2009 opinion that sent Blankumsee’s case back to circuit court.

There was no allegation the information contained in Kopera’s ballistics analysis was fraudulent, Assistant State’s Attorney Viki Pauler told Circuit Judge John  H. McDowell. There were two weapons tested in connection with the shooting, the analysis was peer reviewed and one gun, a .22-caliber pistol, was retested after Kopera’s death, she said.

Dennis was killed by a .22-caliber bullet, Deputy State’s Attorney Joseph Michael testified at the hearing. He was the lead prosecutor in Blankumsee’s 2004 trial and was called to testify about a conversation he might or might not have had a week after the murder with a woman named Patricia Miller.

The ballistics evidence did not tie Blankumsee to a specific weapon, but did place both guns at the scene, and several people testified they saw Blankumsee firing a weapon, Michael testified. He testified he could not recall the conversation with Miller.

Miller testified Monday that Blankumsee and her daughter came to her house after the shooting, and that her daughter had a handgun. Miller testified she took the gun and hid it in a cooler.

“He kept being rude to me and threatening me with 20 years,” Miller testified about her conversation with Michael. Miller testified Michael showed her pictures of a gun and she told him that it was not the gun she hid.

In 2008, she signed a statement to that effect, and Semler argued the 2004 conversation was information the state should have made the defense aware of before Blankumsee’s trial.

Pauler asked Miller if she wrote the 2008 affidavit.

“Yep,” Miller testified.

Pauler then asked Miller if she could read and write.

“No ... I can read and write some,” Miller testified.

When asked to read the affidavit, Miller said she did not have her glasses.

Miller was unclear in her testimony about who prepared the handwritten affidavit or who gave it to her, but she testified Blankumsee asked her to sign the document.

McDowell said he would rule on Blankumsee’s motions in the next two weeks.

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