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Texas Prisoner Held in Prison 35 Years after Conviction Vacated

Texas Prisoner Held in Prison 35 Years after Conviction Vacated

by Matt Clarke

The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas denied a bid to halt the retrial of a mentally challenged prisoner whose original conviction was overturned but who remained incarcerated almost 35 years later. In ruling against Jerry Hartfield, the federal court cleared the way for his retrial to proceed in August 2015.

Hartfield, 59, was convicted of the 1976 murder of a 55-year-old ticket agent at a bus station in Bay City, Texas. The body of Eunice J. Lowe was found in the bus station’s storeroom; she had been beaten to death with a pickaxe handle, stabbed with a glass bottle and raped. Her car and several thousand dollars were stolen. Despite proclaiming his innocence, Hartfield, a mentally impaired black man with an IQ below 70, was convicted at trial and sentenced to death on June 30, 1977.

Three years later, in September 1980, the verdict was overturned on the grounds that prosecutors violated the Constitution when striking a juror from hearing the case because the juror expressed reservations about the death penalty. After Hartfield’s attorneys challenged the prosecutors’ actions, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals reversed the conviction based on Witherspoon v. Illinois, 391 U.S. 510 (1968) and ordered a new trial.

The usual response to such a ruling would be to proceed with another trial, but Texas officials chose a different approach: Prosecutors filed a motion arguing that the error recognized by the appellate court under Witherspoon applied only to the sentence and not to the issue of guilt or innocence. The state claimed that Hartfield’s conviction was valid but that his sentence should be converted from the death penalty to life in prison.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals disagreed and formally vacated Hartfield’s conviction on March 4, 1983; eleven days later, then-Governor Mark White commuted his sentence. Hartfield was now being held in prison with no conviction and no sentence; legally, it was as if he had never been convicted. What followed was a series of blunders that might have been considered a comedy of errors, except it was not funny at all.

The appellate court never notified the governor’s office or the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles that Hartfield’s conviction had been vacated. Instead, officials in the county where Hartfield was tried and convicted falsely reported to the Court of Criminal Appeals that the court’s mandate for a retrial had been carried out, when in fact it had not. If Hartfield’s attorneys were aware of any of these missteps, they took no action. Hartfield remained in prison.

Finally, in 2006, with the help of a jailhouse lawyer, Hartfield began to question the legal status of his incarceration. In 2008 he obtained a new attorney who began a round of court filings on his behalf. Five years later, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals – the same court that vacated his conviction in 1980 – allowed Hartfield to pursue a claim that his right to a speedy trial had been violated.

Pursuing that argument in another round of pleadings, however, resulted in a July 18, 2013 ruling by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals that Hartfield had not exhausted his legal remedies in state court. See: Hartfield v. Thaler, 536 Fed.Appx. 455 (5th Cir. 2013). Therefore, Hartfield’s attorneys filed a writ of mandamus with a state court in April 2014, arguing that keeping him imprisoned for over 30 years after his conviction had been vacated was such an egregious violation of the Sixth Amendment guarantee to a speedy trial that the State of Texas had, in fact, given up the right to retry him.

Attorneys for the state argued that because Hartfield had never raised that issue during his many years of incarceration, he could not do so now. In fact, the state contended – presumably while attempting to keep a straight face – that Hartfield had deliberately remained in prison for more than three decades so that one day he could make the argument that his Sixth Amendment speedy trial rights had been violated.

In spite of the absurdity of such a claim, State District Judge Craig Estlinbaum agreed and went one step further, writing, “There is no evidence that Hartfield has suffered any anxiety relating to his pretrial detention.” Estlinbaum did not offer an explanation as to how someone could be imprisoned for nearly 35 years with no valid conviction or sentence and not suffer any anxiety.

On the contrary, the judge concluded, Hartfield actually benefited from the long delay in a retrial because such a proceeding today would be far less likely to end with the death penalty than if he had been retried in the 1980s, shortly after his conviction was overturned. Estlinbaum did acknowledge that the passage of time, the loss of evidence and the death of witnesses would also impair Hartfield’s ability to mount an effective defense.

According to the New York Daily News, “the murder weapon, a pick-axe, has been lost and witnesses have died.” Hartfield, meanwhile, continued to maintain his innocence and his claim that a false confession was the basis for his original conviction.

As the case wound its way into the federal courts, Hartfield’s attorneys again pressed their argument that a retrial after 35 years would violate their client’s right to a speedy trial. In an April 2015 ruling, however, a federal district court in Houston denied that claim.

The court wrote that “well-established Fifth Circuit precedent holds that the federal courts should abstain from exercising jurisdiction over pretrial habeas corpus claims (emphasis added) if the issues raised in the petition may be resolved either by trial on the merits in the state court or by other state procedures available to the petitioner.”

“Applying these principles in the speedy-trial context, the Fifth Circuit has held that, absent ‘special circumstances,’ pretrial habeas relief is available only to enforce a state’s obligation to bring a defendant promptly to trial, not to adjudicate the merits of a speedy-trial claim under the Sixth Amendment and bar the state from proceeding to trial,” the district court added. “In this case, Petitioner argues that preventing his retrial in the state courts is necessary to protect his constitutional right to a speedy trial, essentially morphing his speedy-trial right into a right not to be tried.”

In denying the petition, the district court cited United States v. MacDonald, 435 U.S. 850, 98 S.Ct. 1547 (1978), in which the Supreme Court stated, “the Speedy Trial Clause does not, either on its face or according to the decisions of this Court, encompass a ‘right not to be tried’ which must be upheld prior to trial if it is to be enjoyed at all.” See: Hartfield v. Osborne, 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 53461 (S.D. Tex. Apr. 21, 2015).

“It’s one of those one-in-a-million deals,” stated Kenneth R. Hawk III, the federal public defender appointed to represent Hartfield. “When you see it, it’s kind of breathtaking.”

“Hartfield’s position is as straightforward and subtle as a freight train,” said U.S. District Court Judge Lynn Hughes. “The [state] 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.”

Until now, that is. Hartfield’s retrial, before Judge Estlinbaum, began on August 10, 2015 – almost 35 years after his original conviction was vacated. He was reconvicted on the murder charge on August 19. His lead attorney, Jay Wooten, questioned the fairness of the trial because some of the evidence and many witnesses were no longer available. Apparently, the retrial of a mentally impaired defendant who remained incarcerated for more than three decades after his conviction was overturned is what passes for “justice” in the U.S. criminal justice system.

Hartfield, who no longer faced the death penalty due to his low IQ, was sentenced on August 20, 2015 to life in prison. As a result of the amount of time he had served before being retried, he should be immediately eligible for parole.

Sources: Associated Press,,,,,,,, New York Daily News

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Related legal cases

Hartfield v. Osborne

Hartfield v. Thaler