In 1997, David Housler was convicted of the murders of four employees in the notorious "Taco Bell" murders in Clarksville, Tenn., and was sentenced to four consecutive life sentences. But on Monday, after spending nearly 14 years in prison, Housler walked out of prison a free man thanks to four years of pro bono work by a team of Sidley Austin lawyers who were able to show that the government had convicted an innocent man.
Housler’s involvement in the Taco Bell case was partly a matter of unfortunate timing. Shortly after a gunman walked into the Taco Bell restaurant on Jan. 30, 1994, and shot four individuals, Housler was arrested for his suspected involvement in an unrelated robbery. Facing a bail of $50,000, Housler concocted a story designed to provide prosecutors information about the Taco Bell shooting in exchange for a reduced bail.
Housler’s story involved his supposed meeting with Courtney Mathews, the primary suspect in the Taco Bell shooting, at a party. Housler said that Mathews had told him that he was planning to rob the restaurant and that he wasn’t going to leave any witnesses alive. Courtney Mathews was convicted of the killings in 1996, based on overwhelming physical evidence.
While Housler had never met Mathews and certainly hadn’t spoken to him about the plans for the Taco Bell shooting, prosecutors took that statement and later used it as evidence that Housler was involved. After a series of what were later proven to be prosecutorial missteps, prosecutors were able to extract another false statement from Housler that tied him to the murders.
In 1997, a jury convicted Housler as an accomplice, based on prosecutors' claim that he had acted as a lookout for Mathews. Housler’s false confession to prosecutors was admitted during trial and wasn't contested by his attorney. That statement, which Housler later recanted, was enough to convince the jury of his involvement in the shootings and he was sentenced to four consecutive life sentences.
After years of failed attempts to appeal his case, Sidley agreed to represent Housler pro bono in 2007. The firm assembled a team of five lawyers led by Washington-based partner Paul Hemmersbaugh to represent Housler.
After 10,000 hours of work, Hemmersbaugh’s team showed that the prosecution’s missteps had fatally flawed their case. Hemmersbaugh also showed that Housler’s original attorney, Larry McMillan, who is now a state judge in Tennessee, had failed to provide adequate counsel.
Judge John Gasaway, the judge overseeing Housler’s post-conviction relief proceeding also found that new evidence—in particular, Mathew’s 1994 confession to his attorneys that he had acted alone and did not even know Housler—also entitled Housler to a new trial.
On Sept. 23, Gasaway vacated Housler’s convictions and granted him a new trial. Hemmersbaugh said Housler was allowed to post bail and is now living in Kentucky.
Although the state of Tennessee could still appeal that ruling, Hemmersbaugh said that was unlikely because there is no evidence that his client was in any way connected to the murders.
“We’re thrilled that our client is out of prison and is a free man. This was a great example of justice being done,” Hemmersbaugh said.