Jerry Hartfield

15 June 2017 :

On Monday afternoon, Jerry Hartfield, 61, Black, was released from Hutchins State Jail in Dallas, after spending 41 years behind bars, part of the time on death row. 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, Texas’s 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 Hartfield’s death sentence to life imprisonment in 1983. There was only one catch: Because Hartfield’s 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 Appeals ruled that Hartfield was indeed in prison without a sentence. Prosecutors then announced their intention to retry him—more than three decades after his original sentence was tossed out—and kept him in prison until then. In 2014, a state judge (Craig Estlinbaum) ruled that Hartfield’s 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 January 19, 2017 the 13th Court of Appeals ruled that he was not only denied his constitutional right to a speedy trial (which prevented Hartfield from meaningfully presenting a defense), 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 — not 32. The three-judge panel dismissed the indictment against Mr. Hartfield, in effect erasing the recent conviction. According to “The Marshall Project”, “When Jerry Hartfield walked out of the Hutchins State Jail in Dallas on Monday into the sunlight and the arms of his family, he became one of the most unlikely prisoners ever to be freed early in Texas. He wasn’t exonerated or released on parole. He wasn’t pardoned by the governor. No one else has confessed to the murder for which he was convicted in 1977. No DNA cleared him. No witness recanted. No celebrities pleaded his cause.
Hartfield was freed from prison because Texas finally gave up trying to find a valid reason to keep him there. He had waited 35 years between trials without a conviction, a prisoner simply forgotten for decades in the state’s massive justice system.


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