The Associated Press reports on the story of Jerry Hartfield, who remains in prison awaiting retrial after his conviction was reversed. While this scenario is common to many inmates, Hartfield’s conviction was reversed in 1980, yes, 1980. He has been waiting almost 30 years for his retrial. How did this happen?
In 1977, Hartfield was tried for the murder of a bus station agent. The evidence against Hartfield was a confession to police and an unused bus ticket near the crime scene with his fingerprints on it. The jury deliberated for just over 3 hours to convict Hartfield and took 20 minutes to sentence him to death.
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals overturned Hartfield’s murder conviction in 1980 because it found a potential juror improperly was dismissed for expressing reservations about the death penalty. The state tried twice but failed to get the court to re-examine that ruling, and on March 15, 1983 — 11 days after the court’s second rejection — then-Gov. Mark White commuted Hartfield’s sentence to life in prison.
But you cannot commute a sentence after it has been overturned. This is where the confusion began. Hartfield thought his case was still under appeal. However, his attorneys halted their representation after the commutation. A federal judge has ruled that the conviction did not exist at the time of the commutation. However, the state is now appealing a federal appellate decision, arguing that Hartfield filed his appeal too late. This means that Hartfield will remain in prison for the time being.
This delay has been harmful to Hartfield’s claim of innocence. He is described in court documents as an illiterate fifth-grade dropout with an IQ of 51, but who says he has since learned to read and has become a devout Christian. Given his IQ, there are questions as to whether his confession is reliable. In addition, there is untested DNA evidence from the victim’s body, including semen. These avenues certainly could have been investigated over the past 30 years. Now, evidence may be in untestable condition, witnesses memories faded, and evidence lost or destroyed. Even if retried, Hartfield may not be able adequately present a defense.
Is this a unique situation? Hartfield’s current attorney, Kenneth R. Hawk II, recently described the case as a “one-in-a-million” situation in which an inmate has been stuck in the prison system for more than three decades because no one seems to know what to do with him. Regardless, something went seriously wrong and should not be overlooked. I’m not sure how Hartfield’s appellate attorneys failed to recognize that the commutation did not apply. Could they be liable for ineffective assistance of counsel.
Many could blame Hartfield but inmates are often the last to know and unable to sort through the multiple legal decisions affecting their case. Plus, when a case is overturned, this does not necessarily mean immediate release. It would be common for someone like Hartfield to assume that he would be retried, especially if his attorney did not notify him. Someone needs to take responsibility and be accountable for what happened.