Paul Hemmersbaugh of Sidley Austin.
Paul Hemmersbaugh of Sidley Austin. (Dupont Photographers)

Years of hard work, resistance from prosecutors and an uphill legal climb are to be expected when an attorney takes on a wrongful conviction case. But most attorneys don’t expect to be threatened by an incarcerated gang member.

That was just one of the hurdles Sidley Austin partner Paul Hemmersbaugh and his team encountered during seven years representing David Housler, serving life for a notorious quadruple murder in Tennessee in 1994. Most notably, Hemmersbaugh had to figure out how to prove Housler’s innocence, given that the then-19-year-old confessed to the crime. Another complication: A tornado had barreled though the local courthouse years earlier, destroying key documents in the case. Then, he said, there were prickly judges and prosecutors who feared an exoneration in the politically sensitive case.

Hemmersbaugh, based in Washington, prevailed in 2011 — the first time in the history of Tennessee that a state court vacated a murder conviction. The Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed in September 2013. Prosecutors in December decided against further appeal. “Paul brought in a team of lawyers and attacked the case,” said Susan Kay, an associate dean at Vanderbilt University Law School who assisted on the case. “They left no stone unturned when it came to law and facts.”

When he accepted the case in 2007, Hemmersbaugh had to unravel a web of contradictory information about the defendant. In a nutshell, another man, Courtney Mathews, confessed and was convicted of the murders. (Mathews would be the one who, from jail, threatened the attorneys as they sought to involve him in Housler’s defense.) Police had picked up Housler for an unrelated petty crime shortly after the murders and, based on his tenuous connection to Mathews, relentlessly interrogated him about his potential involvement. Housler, in an effort to receive leniency for the petty crime, eventually concocted a story that he served as lookout and getaway driver for Mathews. A jury in 1997 found him to be an accomplice and he drew four life sentences. Hemmersbaugh and his team spent 10 days at trial poking holes in the prosecution’s case. “They just papered me to death,” said attorney Joseph Baugh, who represented the state. “When they filed briefs, they were two, three inches thick.”