HAMMOND, Ind. (CBS) — When James Hill was tried for the murder of an off-duty Hammond, Indiana police officer, investigators withheld crucial evidence from public view and from his defense team.
As a result, the charges stuck and a conviction held – until now.READ MORE: Officer Struck By Car While Directing Traffic In South Loop, 2 In Custody
A judge recently overturned Hill’s conviction, and because of what has since come to light, Hill is a free man.
But if you think James Hill views himself as lucky, just wait until what you hear what he told CBS 2’s Chris Tye.
“I was never there. The authorities knew I wasn’t there,” Hill said. “You know, I was a 17-year-old; a 17-year-old in high school.”
Hill is talking about the occasion when two armed robbers struck a Holiday Inn in Hammond early on the morning of Nov. 18, 1980 and shot and killed off-duty Officer Larry Pucalik – who was working security at the hotel. CBS 2 reporter Pat McCarthy was on the scene later that same day.
“They had a blue cloth bag and they told this lady (the desk clerk) to stuff it with cash,” McCarthy reported. “Pucalik rushed in from the back room. He was shot dead before he could fire his half-drawn gun.”
CBS 2 Vault: Pat McCarthy Reports On Officer Pucalik’s Murder
Police at the time identified a Chevrolet Impala as the killer’s initial getaway car.
“After the funeral, Hammond officers were eager to resume the hunt for the killers,” McCarthy reported for a subsequent story.
CBS 2 Vault: Pat McCarthy Reports On Officer Pucalik’s Funeral
Forty-one years after that hunt began, it is still not over.
“Look, a police department responding to the injury or death of one of their colleagues is a force to be reckoned with,” said Scott King, attorney for Hill.
And the force of Hammond police and the Lake County Prosecutor settled on then 17-year-old James Hill – not as the shooter, but as an accomplice. They alleged he was the getaway driver, behind the wheel of that 1973 Chevy Impala.
Hill: “That was a school night. This happened 2 or 3 in the morning.”
Tye: “Were there alibis? Was there any sort of evidence that you weren’t there?”
Hill: “Well, my alibis, they had passed on when this case came to trial.”
They had all passed because 38 years had passed between the murder of Officer Pucalik and the murder trial of James Hill.
“They bring the case to trial in 2018. He was convicted,” King said.
Hill was convicted and sentenced to 47 years in prison after his lawyer said five witnesses told the jury that they saw Hill that night – and he was either in the car in question or had a blue bag on him that was used in the robbery.
King:“Well, it turns out that seven years before that testimony in front of a jury, they were on videotape or on audiotape saying, ‘I don’t recognize any of these same pictures,’ ‘I’m not sure about that car.’”
Tye: “And that didn’t make it into the trial?”
King: “It didn’t, because it was never turned over to the defense.”READ MORE: 1 Wounded In Shooting On Interstate 57 Near Markham
Tye: “If those recordings were played in court, he wouldn’t have been convicted?”
King: “That’s my belief.”
On May 12 of this year, Lake County, Indiana prosecutors and the judge who heard his case agreed to overturn Hill’s conviction.
There were two reasons. One was that a cloth used in the Holiday Inn murder was tested after Hill’s trial and his DNA was not found on it, and the second was because those recordings of future witnesses – contradicting their future testimony – were withheld from his lawyers.
“We can’t explain why it wasn’t turned over, including, we don’t know that it was intentional,” King said.
In legal circles, this is considered a violation of the Brady Rule. Its the reason he’s free today. And in what may be a first of its kind in American legal history…this is the SECOND time in his life that James hill saw one of his convictions reversed because of the Brady Rule.
Just weeks before the Holiday Inn murder, a rape occurred at a Hammond gas station.
Hill was convicted and served 17 years. But again, key evidence – this time from Hammond police – was not turned over to his lawyers.
He was released and his conviction was overturned.
Tye: “This has to be a one in a million shot, if we are to believe that everything happened such that you were not part of either of these.”
Hill: “Well, everything clearly states that I wasn’t.”
Tye: “On both cases?”
Hill: “DNA don’t lie.”
Tye: “Do you feel as though you are the luckiest, or least lucky person you know?”
Hill: “I’m the least luckiest person I know.”
Attorney King added, “To have been twice convicted, different offenses – and to have those convictions set aside, on the basis in each case that the state failed to turn over evidence of innocence – it’s just incredible.”
Hill: “I will feel fully exonerated once they dismiss this completely.”
Tye: “And you’re confident it will happen?”
Hill: “I am prayerful that will happen.”
Tye: “What’s your message to the system here?”
Hill: “Don’t rush to judge. This was a rush-to-judgment call that had nothing to do with me. It’s just like they just wanted to clean the books up.”
We reached out to over a dozen friends and colleagues of Officer Pucalik. They did not want to speak about the case.MORE NEWS: Watchdog Report Says CPD Has Taken Few Steps To Fix Problems With Records Management In Court Cases
Hill goes before a judge next month to determine if he will be re-tried for the crime. In an unrelated case, he is suing for wrongful imprisonment.