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Name: Maryland v. Kulbicki
Case #: 14-848
Court: US Supreme Court
District USSup
Opinion Date: 10/05/2015

Trial counsel did not provide deficient performance by failing to object to expert testimony on bullet fragments that was widely accepted at the time of trial. In 1995, Kulbicki was convicted of murder for shooting his girlfriend in the head at point blank range. At trial, the testimony of an expert in Comparative Bullet Lead Analysis (CBLA), connected bullets from Kulbicki’s gun to bullet fragments found in the victim’s brain and Kulbicki’s truck. After Kulbicki’s trial, CBLA fell out of favor and a state appellate court held that CBLA evidence was not generally accepted by the scientific community and was therefore inadmissible. In his state petition for postconviction relief, Kulbicki argued that his attorneys were ineffective for failing to question the legitimacy of CBLA. The Maryland Court of Appeals vacated Kulbicki’s conviction, holding that his trial counsel rendered ineffective assistance by failing to challenge the CBLA evidence. The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari. Held: Reversed. The reasonableness of counsel’s performance should not be assessed in hindsight. (Lockhart v. Fretwell (1993) 506 U.S. 364, 372.) However, that is exactly what the Maryland Court of Appeals did when it concluded that Kulbicki’s defense attorneys were ineffective for failing to predict the demise of CBLA. At the time of Kulbicki’s trial in 1995, the validity of CBLA was widely accepted, and courts admitted CBLA evidence until 2003. Although there was a 1991 report that could have led counsel to question the validity of CBLA evidence, the U.S. Supreme Court was unwilling to conclude that defense counsel’s failure to find or reference it during trial amounted to deficient performance. Reasonable competence does not require that lawyers “go looking for a needle in a haystack, even when they have reason to doubt there is any needle there.”