HOUSTON (AP) — A former Texas prosecutor who alleges he was fired for refusing to withhold evidence from a defendant is getting help in his efforts to revive a wrongful termination lawsuit from an unlikely source: the Innocence Project.
The nonprofit legal group is best known for helping exonerate wrongfully convicted individuals. But on Wednesday it joined attorneys for former Nueces County prosecutor Eric Hillman in asking the Texas Supreme Court during a hearing in Austin to reinstate the lawsuit that was thrown out by a lower court.
Hillman alleges the Nueces County District’s Attorney’s Office fired him in 2014 for refusing to follow a superior’s order to not turn over evidence he had found that could have benefited someone he was prosecuting in an intoxication assault case.
Hillman’s attorneys and the Innocence Project have argued his firing goes against a 2014 state law — the Michael Morton Act — designed to prevent wrongful convictions. Hillman’s attorneys also argue that a 1985 Texas case prevents employees from being fired for refusing to commit an illegal act.
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Attorneys for Nueces County and Texas argued the state has immunity from most lawsuits, the 2014 law doesn’t offer prosecutors any protections and the 1985 case doesn’t cover public employees.
Wednesday’s hearing was the first time in the Innocence Project’s 27-year history it has appeared in court on behalf of a current or former prosecutor.
Phil Durst, an attorney representing the Innocence Project, argued that a ruling in favor of Hillman would help enforce the “highest judicial function of making sure that innocent people are not convicted of crimes and sent to prison or worse.”
Christopher Gale, Hillman’s attorney, said the 1985 case was clear that all employees are entitled to protection from being fired if they refuse to commit an illegal act.
“My client is not only Mr. Hillman, but defendants, all prosecutors. I think we’re arguing for a bigger purpose today,” Gale said.
The Innocence Project has argued that if Hillman’s lawsuit isn’t reinstated, it would help create a culture of disregard for the law. As an example, the legal group in court documents highlighted the case of a woman in Nueces County whose 2015 murder conviction was overturned after a judge determined prosecutors had suppressed evidence.
Jason LaFond, an assistant solicitor general with the Texas Attorney General’s Office, said the state retains immunity from a lawsuit like Hillman’s and any intervention that would allow such a case to go forward should be done by the Legislature and not the courts.
“There’s no evidence there is a systematic problem (with prosecutorial misconduct) here. … There is no need for this court to act,” said LaFond, who added that Hillman should have utilized the Texas Whistleblower Act, which protects public employees.
Chief Justice Nathan Hecht seemed skeptical of claims that the state can have such immunity.
“It’s a little hard to see how a county can come in and argue, ‘We can violate the law and there’s just nothing you can do about it,'” he said.
It’s not clear when the court will rule.
This story has been corrected to show that the law designed to prevent wrongful convictions took effect on 2014 and not 2013.
Follow Juan A. Lozano on Twitter at www.twitter.com/juanlozano70