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Chance calling has county resident among best in world
By Steve Clark - Thursday, April 20, 2017 8:19 AM
Originally published April 17, 2017.
John Nixon found his calling in life by chance.
While training to be an engineer in London, he was approached by government representatives who were searching for engineers to work on munitions and ordinance.
“They kind of picked me out and said, ‘Come for an interview,’” Nixon recalls. “So, I had an interview and then got the job. I was kind of like a troubleshooter, going from one technology area to another.
“So, I worked on a lot of things – like missiles, explosives, small arms.”
Today, Nixon is an expert on weapons systems and explosives. He can often be found in courtrooms, serving as a forensic consultant on those topics for litigants.
Nixon’s work recently garnered him the prestigious Founders Award from the American Academy of Forensic Sciences. The accolade, which he received in February, recognizes outstanding service to the engineering sciences.
“Potentially, it can be awarded every year, but it doesn’t get awarded every year,” explains Nixon. “If they think there’s nobody worthy, they don’t award it.”
Nixon speculates he received the award for his body of work, rather than one specific accomplishment.
“What I did do to get that, I’m not sure,” he remarks. “So, I think it’s just over the last 10 years or 15 years or whatever, someone’s probably thought, ‘Well, he’s achieved a lot of stuff.’”
Nixon is a Huntington County resident. He hails from Scotland and lived for many years in London before moving to northeast Indiana in 2000.
One of Nixon’s first significant contributions upon relocating to the Hoosier State was helping a Fort Wayne company test the durability of plastic barriers it had manufactured to protect troops in Afghanistan.
“After 9/11, nobody in this country knew about terrorist bombs,” says Nixon. “So, I got the job of building the car bombs to test these things and we went down to a quarry between Fort Wayne and Decatur.
“This was about the end of 2001. So, we had a couple of big, 600-pound car bombs and we blew the cars up. We had the barriers around to test their effectiveness.”
The barriers, Nixon says, were up to the task and put into service, placed in and around troop tents, as well as other locations. Troops could rest slightly easier, knowing that the barriers were graded to withstand bullets as powerful as those fired from a .50 caliber rifle.
“The Afghanis or the Iraqis, they’ll just be blazing away at these tents,” says Nixon, “and the guys come out in good health and it’s like, ‘Oh, these guys must be like gods! We just put 500 rounds in there and they walk out!’”
More recently, Nixon has turned his attention to land mines. Often active for years after their deployment and laid in areas that never receive warning signs, he has researched ways to manufacture mines that won’t pose a long-term threat to noncombatants.
“So, I thought, well, I’ll go with the technology and have something that’s got a timer in it,” Nixon explains, “and it’ll be active for, say, a year and then you’ve got to reactivate it. So, if you’ve left the area, if you don’t reactivate it, the thing’s inert, nobody’s going to get hurt by it.
“And you could probably do that for a couple of dollars a mine, you know, so it’s a cheap solution.”
In order for such mines to become the norm, though, Nixon says it’s up to governments.
“You need to legislate it so they have to make them that way,” he states, referring to weapons manufacturers.
When Nixon isn’t thinking about weapons on battlefields, he’s thinking about ones that have been connected to crimes. Through his company, Athena Research & Consulting LLC, Nixon offers his services to prosecutors and defendants alike as a forensic consultant.
He says he’s earned a reputation in the United States as someone who’s unafraid of questioning forensic practices just because they’re longstanding.
“Some of the people in the forensics science labs say, ‘Well, you know, we’ve done it this way for the last 20 years,’” remarks Nixon. “And I say, ‘Well, if you’re doing it wrong for 20 years, you’re just experienced in doing it wrong. You’ve got to think about things and not just blindly follow what someone else wrote down.’
“So, I tend to think about everything. I question everything. That’s a good mindset to have in the kind of things I do.”
Nixon memorably questioned the testimony of Joseph Kopera, a longtime Maryland State Police firearms examiner whose contributions to a case in 1993 helped convict a man, James A. Kulbicki, of murder. For a hearing in 2007 that saw a judge consider a request by Kulbicki for a new trial, partly on grounds that Kopera’s ballistics analysis was faulty, Nixon disputed the examiner’s findings and subsequent testimony.
“I wrote my report, they got my report and they showed it to the guy who originally testified and he wrote, like, a rebuttal, saying ‘This guy doesn’t know what he’s doing’ and blah, blah, blah,” says Nixon of Kopera. “So, anyway, in the meantime this guy claimed to have two degrees in engineering. So, I was looking at some of his testimony on other cases as well, and the way he testified, there’s no way he could be an engineer, because he’d come up with ridiculous stuff.”
Nixon encouraged attorneys with The Innocence Project, a nonprofit legal organization, to investigate Kopera’s credentials. Those lawyers did some digging and discovered that the examiner had never attained either of his degrees. After the attorneys confronted Kopera with their findings, the 61-year-old hastily retired, then took his own life.
“He’d been working on false credentials for all those years,” says Nixon.
Consulting on court cases may be laborious, requiring countless hours of research, but Nixon says being able to work in service of the truth makes it worthwhile.
“Often, I get asked when I’m on the stand,” he says, “‘Are you working for the defense or the prosecution in this case, the defendant or the plaintiff?’ And I just say, ‘Well, in my view, there’s at least three parties in every case: There’s the defense, the prosecution and the truth.’
“And I work for the truth.”