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The Right to Competent, not Perfect, Counsel

WASHINGTON (CN) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday obliterated relief for a Maryland police officer who shot his young mistress in the head at point-blank range.

When James Kulbicki killed Gina Marie Neuslein in 1993, the pair were ensnarled in a paternity suit and faced a court appearance in the coming days on unpaid child support.

Kulbicki was married to another woman and he was 14 years older than Neuslein. They had been seeing each other on and off for about two years, and Kulbicki admitted at his murder trial to being the father of Neuslein's 18-month-old child.

The former police officer made headway in his bid for postconviction relief when he complained that his defense attorneys were ineffective for failing to question the legitimacy of certain forensic evidence.

At Kulbicki's trial in 1995, an FBI agent testified about Comparative Bullet Lead Analysis, or CBLA, telling the court that the composition of elements in the molten lead of a bullet fragment found in Kulbicki's truck matched the composition of lead in a bullet fragment removed from Neuslein's brain.

One could "expect" such similarity if "examining two pieces of the same bullet," Special Agent Ernest Peele testified. He said the bullet taken from Kulbicki's gun was not an "exact" match to the bullet fragments, but that the bullets probably came from the same package.

CBLA fell out of favor, however, in the years after Kulbicki's conviction. Kulbicki seized on this when the Court of Appeals of Maryland declared CBLA evidence inadmissible for the first time in 2006, finding that it was not generally accepted by the scientific community.

The Maryland Court of Appeals vacated Kulbicki's conviction in 2013 on that basis alone.

The U.S. Supreme Court summarily reversed Monday, finding no support for the "conclusion that Kulbicki's defense attorneys were constitutionally required to predict the demise of CBLA."

"At the time of Kulbicki's trial in 1995, the validity of CBLA was widely accepted, and courts regularly admitted CBLA evidence until 2003," the unsigned decision states.

The justices saw no deficient performance by Kulbicki's defense team in "dedicating their time and focus to elements of the defense that did not involve poking methodological holes in a then-uncontroversial mode of ballistics analysis."

Though Kulbicki complained about his attorneys' failure to find the 1991 report Peele had co-authored - a document that "presaged the flaws in CBLA evidence" - the justices on Monday saw "no reason to believe that a diligent search would even have discovered the supposedly crucial report."

"Given the uncontroversial nature of CBLA at the time of Kulbicki's trial, the effect of the judgment below is to demand that lawyers go 'looking for a needle in a haystack,' even when they have 'reason to doubt there is any needle there,'" the five-page ruling continues.

It is important to note that the constitutional right to counsel affords "reasonable competence," not perfect advocacy, the justices added. Kublicki's conviction in 2013 on that basis alone.

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