A murderer may be about to walk free, a judge said Thursday, the possible endgame to what the Texas Court of Appeals describes as a "criminal justice nightmare." Jerry Hartfield was convicted of the murder of Bay City bus station clerk Eunice Lowe in 1976 and sentenced to death, but that conviction was overturned on appeal in 1980 because a potential juror had been wrongly excused over doubts about capital punishment. While Hartfield, who is mentally impaired, waited decades for a new trial, prosecutors were under the impression that the appeal was made invalid by a commutation of Hartfield's initial death penalty sentence to life in prison, reports the New York Times. That wasn't in fact the case.
As the Atlantic previously reported, "everyone dropped the ball." And though Hartfield, 60, eventually got his retrial in 2015 and was again found guilty of murder, he was denied his right to a speedy trial, the court ruled Thursday. In dismissing the indictment against him, the court essentially voided his 2015 conviction. As a result, "a defendant who may be guilty of murder may go free" but "it is the only possible remedy," Judge Gina M. Benavides said. Hartfield—who was convicted in 1977 after signing a confession and later recanted (though he is said to have pointed authorities to the location of Lowe's stolen car)—will likely live with his sister if and when he is released, his lawyer says. (Read more Texas stories.)