“This was the perfect storm of everything that could go wrong in the justice system,” is how David R. Dow, an attorney representing Jerry Hartfield, explains the circumstances surrounding his client’s case.
Four decades ago, Hartfield was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death. Upon automatic review, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals found an error occurred with jury selection, so they overturned his conviction and ordered a new trial.
Despite the high court’s ruling, the state sought and was granted a commutation by Governor Mark White in order to avoid a new trial. The commutation changed Hartfield’s sentence from death to life in prison, but unbeknownst to most, Hartfield’s sentence had already been overturned and vacated by the time the commutation was issued.
Since there was legally no death sentence to commute, Hartfield sat in prison awaiting a new trial. His public defender had long gone, figuring the case was resolved as did the prosecutors, so with no representation to challenge the commutation, Hartfield waited.
For the next thirty-two years, Hartfield suffered what an appeals court called, “a criminal justice nightmare,” caused by the state. He sat in limbo, in a realm of post-indictment, pre-trial status, not convicted or sentenced to anything.
Having an IQ of 51, Hartfield himself didn’t realize he was serving a life sentence (he thought he was awaiting a new trial) until a fellow inmate discovered the error. That inmate helped Hartfield file motions to various courts, which the prosecutors fought and the courts refused.
Then in 2013, he received a ruling from the state Court of Criminal Appeals saying that both his conviction and life sentence were void. But, Hartfield continued to sit in prison until his 2015 retrial.
Just before the trial, his attorneys attempted to have the indictment set aside because of the state’s violation of his right to a speedy trial, the lower court denied the request and Hartfield was retried, reconvicted, and sentenced to life in prison.
But, he appealed, still saying that the state violated his sixth amendment rights, and this time a panel of judges from the 13th Court of Appeals agreed, “because we agree with Hartfield, we reverse Hartfield’s conviction and render an order of dismissal with prejudice.”
Although the state admitted negligence, they claimed that the blame for the delay fell on Hartfield and his attorneys because of their inaction on the case. The bench disagreed.
One of the judges on the panel, Justice Gina M. Benavides wrote, “We are deeply mindful that our conclusion today means that a defendant who may be guilty of murder may go free,” she continued, “however, based on the United States Constitution, it is the only possible remedy.”
Although the court dismissed the indictment against Hartfield who waits in the Allred Unit in Iowa City, prosecutors can still appeal to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals for a final decision, so it still remains unknown if, or when, he will be released.
Hartfield’s attorney said, “We’re very happy with the court’s decision, but it’s definitely a tragedy that it took 30 years.”
The case is no longer about Hartfield’s innocence, he’s been found guilty numerous times.
Instead, it has become about the absurdity of a system that could “misplace” someone for 32 years while they wait for justice to be served. It is about the fact that a man, who would have long been eligible for parole, was imprisoned for decades on a mere technicality.
We should demand better from a system that has the intended purpose of serving justice, because as ridiculous as Hartfield’s situation is, it is one of too many. Today it is Jerry Hartfield, but tomorrow it will be someone else.