Maryland’s top court will hear the appeal of a man who has spent more than 30 years in prison for a Baltimore murder he says he did not commit and that the testimony against him at trial was tainted.
The Court of Appeals last week agreed to hear Steven G. Carver’s argument that the sole witness who identified him as shooting John Green 33 years ago testified for the state despite being the subject of two open but unserved arrest warrants, a fact known by prosecutors but not disclosed at the 1989 trial.
Carver also says his first-degree murder conviction followed the damning testimony of a since-discredited Baltimore police ballistics expert, who confirmed for the jury the prosecution’s theory that Carver and co-defendant Joe Hodge had shot Green at 4:30 p.m. on March 14, 1989, on Old York Road.
Hodge was also found guilty of first-degree murder.
Carver, who is serving a life sentence without parole, says a since-retained ballistics expert has concluded that Green was shot by a lone gunman, thus contradicting the trial testimony of Joseph Kopera, whose claimed education in firearms identification was found to be false in 2007 – but only after he had testified in cases for 20 years.
Kopera killed himself in March 2007 amid the mounting evidence – later confirmed – that he had lied about his credentials when testifying.
Carver, who is in his early 50s, also says “newly discovered” evidence shows the probability that Green was shot to death to prevent him from testifying at a murder trial while Carver was merely standing near him.
Baltimore City Circuit Judge Charles Peters in 2018 rejected Carver’s petition for a writ of actual innocence. The intermediate Court of Special Appeals upheld Peters’ decision in March, saying that if introduced at trial, the new evidence would not have created a “substantial or significant possibility” that the jury’s verdict would have been different.
In his successful bid for high court review, Carver argued through counsel that the lower courts had mistakenly taken a piecemeal approach to the new evidence rather than looking at what its cumulative effect would have been on the defense’s trial strategy and the jury.
“Newly discovered evidence has revealed that other people were plotting to kill the victim around the time when he was killed, a primary witness had a motive to lie, and the firearms evidence was fraudulent and misleading,” Carver’s appellate attorney, Eva Shell, wrote in papers filed with the Court of Appeals.
“The lower courts applied incorrect legal standards and failed to recognize how the newly discovered evidence would have changed the case as it was presented to the jury, including Carver’s trial preparation, the defenses raised, the trial judge’s evidentiary rulings, and, ultimately, the state’s likelihood of proving Carver’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt,” wrote Shell, an assistant Maryland public defender.
In response, Assistant Maryland Attorney General Carrie J. Williams stated that the evidence Carver seeks to introduce was not newly discovered.
For example, Carver’s trial counsel investigated but did not raise at trial the theory that Hodge acted alone in shooting Green at the behest of Bryant McArthur, whom Green had allegedly seen kill Damon Barrett, Williams wrote to the high court.
McArthur was convicted in 1991 of having murdered Barrett.
In addition, Carver’s trial attorney did not diligently try to find a ballistics expert to contradict Kopera’s testimony, belying the argument that the current expert is newly discovered, Williams added.
“No matter how ‘preeminent’ the state’s expert might be, diligent defense counsel should seek an independent expert opinion if that opinion might help the defense,” Williams wrote. “An independent firearms examiner’s report could have been discovered with the exercise of due diligence prior to trial.”
The high court will hear arguments in Carver’s appeal in October and is expected to render its decision by Aug. 31, 2023. The case is docketed at the high court as Steven G. Carver v. State of Maryland, No. 14, September Term 2022.