For more than 35 years, a Texas man has been in prison even though an appeals court threw out his conviction on a 1976 murder charge that initially had him on death row. Today, 59-year-old Jerry Hartfield returns to court for a retrial, facing a life sentence if convicted of killing a woman who sold tickets at a Bay City bus station. Prosecutors and defense lawyers have haggled over who's to blame for decades of inaction and whether Hartfield's right to a speedy trial has been violated. The trial judge refused to dismiss Hartfield's indictment, but prosecutors did recently take the death penalty off the table, citing a Supreme Court ruling barring execution of mentally impaired people. (At a hearing Friday, a psychologist testified Hartfield's IQ is 67, below the threshold of 70 considered mental impairment.) "Regardless of how the time is parsed out, the delay between the initial conviction in 1977 and the trial ... is extraordinary," a defense attorney said in court documents.
Hartfield was 21 in June 1977 when he was convicted of murdering Eunice Lowe, 55. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals overturned Hartfield's capital murder conviction in 1980 because of a jury selection problem and ordered a new trial. Three years later, then-Gov. Mark White commuted Hartfield's sentence to life in prison. It wasn't until 2006 that an inmate told Hartfield that because of the reversal, it appeared there was no sentence to commute. With the jailhouse lawyer's help, Hartfield, who said he learned to read and write in prison, filed a handwritten court writ demanding retrial or release, which was rejected twice. Hartfield took it to the federal courts, where a US district judge agreed in 2009 there was no conviction. The Matagorda County DA says while prosecutors "may be partially responsible" for not retrying Hartfield earlier, the state hasn't acted in bad faith; he adds Hartfield also bears responsibility for not filing for nearly 25 years.