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NWI Times: Case against man convicted of killing Hammond cop collapsing? Judge overturns murder conviction

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CROWN POINT — A Lake Criminal Court judge on Tuesday set aside a man’s murder conviction in the 1980 shooting death of an off-duty Hammond police officer because prosecutors didn’t turn over evidence to the man’s defense before his trial more than two years ago.

James Hill Jr., 58, was serving a 40-year sentence following his August 2018 conviction for murder in perpetration of a robbery in the homicide of Officer Lawrence J. “Larry” Pucalik on Nov. 14, 1980, at the Holiday Inn-Southeast, formerly at the intersection of Cline Avenue and Interstate 80/94.

In a joint motion filed Tuesday, defense attorney Scott King and Lake County First Assistant Deputy Prosecutor Peter Villarreal asked Judge Salvador Vasquez to release Hill from prison on his own recognizance pending a resolution of the case.

The attorneys listed several evidentiary issues, including newly discovered videotaped statements not previously disclosed to the defense and DNA testing of a towel found in an alleged “getaway car” that eliminated Hill and co-defendants Pierre Catlett and Larry Mayes as contributors.

The murder case against Catlett remains pending and is set for trial starting Aug. 30.

Vasquez is scheduled to rule by a July pretrial conference on whether to exclude testimony from a male eyewitness. Catlett’s attorney, Joseph Curosh Jr., said during a recent hearing the man has failed to show up for depositions. 

Mayes was declared medically incompetent to stand trial in March 2014 and charges against him were subsequently dismissed.

Failure ‘not intentional’

Both sides in the case against Hill agreed the evidence that was not disclosed was exculpatory or could be used to test the credibility of witnesses. As a result, the state was required to disclose it.

“Upon discovering that said evidence was not disclosed to Hill prior to trial, the prosecutor’s office conducted a thorough investigation in an effort to determine why the evidence was not disclosed,” the motion states. “The investigation revealed that the state’s failure to turn over evidence was the result of oversight and not intentional.”

Hill’s attorneys, King and partner Russell Brown, do not have evidence to suggest otherwise, the filing states.

Lake County Prosecutor Bernard Carter said Hill is entitled to a new trial.

The case has been set for a status hearing June 9, when his office plans to request a new trial date, he said. 

King said this is the second time Hill has had a conviction reversed because prosecutors withheld evidence.

“In the early 1980s, Hill was convicted of a rape offense that was later vacated due to the state’s failure to turn over exculpatory evidence,” the veteran defense attorney said. “Unfortunately, that reversal did not occur until after Hill had served a lengthy sentence in the Indiana Department of Correction.”

Carter and his office “should be commended” for their response after the discovery of additional evidence following Hill’s murder conviction, King said.

“Mr. Carter could have taken the approach that so many other prosecutors have taken and fought these issues despite their clear impact on Hill’s conviction,” King said. “Instead, he and his office did the honorable and ethical thing in agreeing to this wrongful conviction being set aside.”

King said the Lake County public defender’s office, which represents Catlett, was instrumental in bringing the evidence to light. Public defenders Thomas Vanes, Curosh and Casey McCloskey worked collaboratively with King’s office after Hill’s conviction, he said.

Hill eliminated as DNA contributor

Hill and Mayes previously were tried, convicted and exonerated of an Oct. 5, 1980, robbery at a Martin Oil gas station in Hammond and rape of the station’s attendant. At the time, Hill was a 17-year student at Roosevelt High School in Gary.

Mayes was sentenced to 80 years in prison and served 21 years before improved DNA testing resulted in his release from prison in December 2001 at age 52.

Mayes later sued Hammond and several of its police officers in U.S. District Court for wrongful conviction and reached a $4.5 million settlement with the city.

Hill was convicted in 1982 of robbery and rape and sentenced to 35 years. He served more than 17 years before his release from prison in 1998.

Lake Criminal Court Magistrate Kathleen Sullivan granted Hill’s petition for post-conviction relief in October 2009, setting aside his convictions.

The petition was granted, in part, because the state withheld evidence the rape victim had been hypnotized before identifying Hill in a photo lineup.

In 2010, Hill sued Hammond and several police officers in U.S. District Court for wrongful conviction.

Lake County prosecutors charged Hill in June 2012 with murder in Pucalik’s slaying, but the charges were dropped in March 2014. Prosecutors again filed murder charges against Hill in September 2016.

Villarreal and former Lake County Deputy Prosecutor James Dillion presented the state’s case against Hill during his trial in August 2018.

In his opening statement at Hill’s trial, King alleged the state’s prosecution of Hill in Pucalik’s homicide was retaliation for the wrongful conviction lawsuit Hill filed in 2010.

On Tuesday, King said the state agreed to ask Judge Vasquez to overturn Hill’s murder conviction following the discovery that five state’s witnesses had given recorded statements in 2011 which conflicted with their testimony at trial.

Those statements were not turned over to the defense, in violation of a U.S. Supreme Court decision.

‘This case is not over with yet’

One of those videotaped interviews was with a female state’s witness, whose testimony at trial “was critical in identifying” Hill and a blue “getaway car.” In the videotaped statement, the woman was unable to identify either Hill or the blue car, records state.

Her videotaped statement “could have been used to challenge her testimony and credibility,” and the state’s failure to disclose the statement to the defense prejudiced Hill, attorneys wrote.

Brown and King also recently learned of previously undisclosed video interviews taken with three other female witnesses, who each identified Hill and a blue bag in their testimony.

“There is exculpatory and/or impeaching evidence as to every one of the said witnesses regarding their ability to identify Hill or the blue bag,” the attorneys wrote.

The new DNA evidence stems from testing performed on a towel recovered in 1980 from a blue car allegedly used in Pucalik’s homicide, King said.

DNA from one of the female witnesses and her female companion was present on the towel, along with DNA from two unidentified male sources, according to court records. However, Hill, Catlett and Mayes were eliminated at contributors.

“That test eliminated Hill’s DNA as being on that cloth, evidence suggesting Hill’s innocence,” King said.

Hill was expected to be released from the Miami Correctional Facility near Bunker Hill, Indiana, by week’s end, Brown said.

“This case is not over with yet,” he said. “However, we are happy for Mr. Hill and the chance to hopefully put this nightmare behind him.”

Hill also plans to maintain his federal civil lawsuit against Hammond and retired Hammond police Detective Capt. Michael Solan Jr. alleging wrongful conviction in the earlier robbery and rape case, King said.

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