Judge overturns conviction in Indiana officer’s 1980 killing

CROWN POINT, Ind. — A judge has overturned a man’s conviction in the 1980 fatal shooting of an off-duty Hammond police officer because prosecutors failed to disclose evidence to the man’s attorneys that could have helped clear him.

Lake County Criminal Court Judge Salvador Vasquez set aside 58-year-old James Hill Jr.’s murder conviction Tuesday after his attorney and a prosecutor filed a joint motion asking the judge to release Hill from prison on his own recognizance pending a resolution in the case.

Hill, of Gary, was convicted in August 2018 of murder in perpetration of a robbery in the November 1980 killing of 33-year-old Officer Lawrence Pucalik.

Prosecutors said Hill, then 17, waited in a getaway car while two accomplices entered a Hammond hotel, demanded money from a clerk and shot Pucalik, who was working as a security guard. Hill has denied involvement.

Hill’s attorney, Scott King, and Lake County First Assistant Deputy Prosecutor Peter Villarreal listed several evidentiary issues in their motion, including newly discovered videotaped statements that weren’t previously disclosed to the defense, The (Northwest Indiana) Times reported.

Their motion also cited DNA found on a towel in the alleged getaway car that eliminated Hill and two co-defendants as its source.

Both sides agreed that the evidence that wasn’t disclosed was exculpatory or could have been used to test the credibility of witnesses, and that as a result, the state had been 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 joint 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 do not have evidence to suggest that the failure to disclose the evidence was intentional, the filing states.

Lake County Prosecutor Bernard Carter said Hill is entitled to a new trial and that his office plans to request a date for it during a June 9 status hearing.

Hill was originally sentenced to 47 years in prison in Pucalik’s killing, but Vasquez reduced it to 40 years last June after the Indiana Court of Appeals upheld Hill’s conviction in November 2019 but found that the judge didn’t follow guidelines that were in place at the time of Pucalik’s killing.

Hill’s two co-defendants in the case are Pierre Catlett and Larry Mayes. Catlett’s murder trial is set to begin Aug. 30, while Mayes was declared medically incompetent to stand trial in March 2014 and charges against him were subsequently dismissed.