It boggles the mind to imagine how former death row inmate Jerry Hartfield, an illiterate man with an IQ of 51, is still locked up today after a Texas appeals court order a new trial for him over 30 years ago.
Hartfield was convicted and sentenced to death for the 1976 murder of Eunice Job Lowe. In 1980, a Texas appeals court ordered a new trial because a juror was wrongly excluded from the initial trial. Though state attorneys fought for a rehearing on that decision twice, the court rejected their request. In 1983, then Governor Mark White commuted Hartfield’s death sentence to life in prison, though his conviction had been overturned and and a retrial had been ordered. Nothing happened with the case for the next 23 years.
In 2006, with the help of another inmate, Hartfield filed a handwritten writ of habeas corpus, asking to either be retried or set free, arguing that his 6th Amendment right to a speedy trial has been violated. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals rejected the motion twice before it was heard by U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes, who said a conviction didn’t even exist in the case. “Hartfield’s position is as straightforward and subtle as a freight train….The court’s mandate was never recalled, its decision never overturned, the conviction never reinstated; yet Hartfield never received the ‘entirely new trial’ ordered by the court,” said Hughes.
The state appealed Judge Hughes’ decision, and the case went before a three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which called Hartfield’s incarceration “disturbingly unprofessional” but returned the case to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, requesting that it define the status of its ruling overturning Hartfield’s conviction. Such action is likely to drag the case out even longer.
This is a highly disturbing case that demonstrates just how broken things are. How are we to trust a system to make decisions involving life and death when the same system essentially forgot about a mentally impaired man who has spent the majority of his life behind bars without due process?
(Photo courtesy of salon.com)
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