TEXAS (USA): ALL CHARGES AGAINST JERRY HARTFIELD DISMISSED
January 19, 2017: The Texas Court of Appeals for the 13th District, an intermediate state appellate court, has dismissed all charges against Jerry Hartfield, 60, Black, an intellectually disabled former death row prisoner.
In 1977, a jury convicted Hartfield, an illiterate Black man with an IQ of 51, of the Sept. 17, 1976 rape and murder of Eunice Lowe, a white 55-year-old woman.
Three years later, Texasâs highest criminal appeals court overturned the conviction, citing jury selection issues, and ordered a retrial, an order the prosecution fought for years. After years of legal wrangling, the high court ruling took effect in March 1983.
Before that retrial began, however, then-Texas Governor Mark White commuted Hartfieldâs death sentence to life imprisonment in 1983. There was only one catch: Because Hartfieldâs original conviction had been vacated, he legally had no death sentence for the governor to commute.
But since no one realized this at the time, or for decades afterward, Hartfield stayed in prison and served the commuted life sentence without retrial. No action had been taken on the case until 2006, when another inmate helped Hartfield file a handwritten motion, asking that he be either retried or set free. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals rejected the petition, but a federal judge (U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes) agreed with Hartfield, saying the decision overturning his conviction still stands.
In June 2013, the Texas Court of Criminal AppealsÂ ruled that Hartfield was indeed in prison without a sentence. Prosecutors then announced their intention to retry himâmore than three decades after his original sentence was tossed outâand kept him in prison until then.
In 2014, a state judge (Craig Estlinbaum) ruled that Hartfieldâs Sixth Amendment right to a speedy trial had not been violated during his 35-year incarceration because he had not sought out a new trial. He was finally tried and convicted again in 2015, but on Thursday, Mr. Hartfield moved closer to freedom than he has been in decades.
A state Court of Appeals today ruled that he was not only denied his constitutional right to a speedy trial, but to a degree the court had neither seen nor imagined before; it noted that the important precedents dealt with delays of three years, six years, eight years â not 32.
The three-judge panel dismissed the indictment against Mr. Hartfield, in effect erasing the recent conviction. But it is still not clear whether, or when, he will get out of prison. Prosecutors could appeal Thursdayâs ruling to the Court of Criminal Appeals, Texasâ highest criminal tribunal.
If they do not, Hartfield's exoneration from death row will become final. Whether the District Attorneyâs Office understood what had happened at the time is unclear, but it never took steps to retry him, and the case lay dormant for the next 23 years.
Prosecutors have argued that Mr. Hartfield had legal representation all along, because his original defense team remained his lawyers of record until a court formally dismissed them in 2013.
But Mr. Hartfieldâs new lawyers say he had no legal counsel from 1983, when the original team thought they were done with the case, until a federal court appointed a lawyer in 2008. Starting in 2006, a fellow inmate helped Mr. Hartfield file motions in various courts. Some were rejected outright, and at least one apparently went to the wrong office. One federal judge ruled in his favor, but another said he had to keep trying in state court.
Finally, in 2013, Texasâ Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that Mr. Hartfieldâs conviction and life sentence were void, but his motions were also void.
The motions were filed under a law applying to people who have been convicted, the court said, and there was no valid conviction on record in his case. He refiled under a different provision, and prosecutors finally sought a new trial. Mr. Hartfieldâs lawyers said the charges should be dismissed because he was denied a speedy trial.
Prosecutors argued that while the government was negligent, the defendant was partly to blame for the delays. For more than two decades, they said, he acquiesced in his imprisonment without trial, as a ploy to avoid the death penalty and to make it harder to mount a case against him. (The Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that intellectually disabled people cannot be executed).
At the time of the first indictment, Mr. Hartfield signed a confession that he later disavowed, and, crucially, investigators said he told them where to find Ms. Loweâs car. Because of his very low I.Q., his lawyers contend it made him easily coerced by detectives, and unable to understand his rights or his confession.
At the time of his retrial, the District Attorneyâs Office was able to locate just one of the 16 evidence exhibits used at the original trial, several witnesses had died, and at least one had dementia. The murder weapon was lost, along with blood and semen samples that could have yielded DNA. Ms. Loweâs car no longer existed.
But the trial court ruled that the case could proceed, and in 2015, 38 years after his first trial, Mr. Hartfield was convicted again and sentenced to life in prison. If that sentence were counted from the start of his time in prison, he would have been eligible for parole long ago. (Source: DPIC, nytimes.com, 19/01/2017)