A Texas inmate with the critical thinking ability of a first-grader has been waiting some 34 years for a new trial. And now he’ll wait some more.
In a recent ruling, a judge decided that Jerry Hartfield’s constitutional right to a speedy trial had not been violated — despite being imprisoned since 1980 on a murder conviction that had been overturned — because, in essence, Hartfield did not ask for a new trial.
Judge Craig Estlinbaum found the state had been negligent in failing to retry the 56-year-old man, and that his ability to adequately defend himself had diminished over time, but he ultimately ruled Hartfield was responsible for his own incarceration because he failed to seek a new trial.
The decision is the latest in a series of confusing and baffling proceedings that have kept the Bay City man behind bars since his 1976 conviction for robbing and killing a bus station worker in 1976.
Hartfield, whose IQ has been estimated at 51, claims he is innocent and that police used a false confession against him. He was sentenced to death, but his conviction was overturned in 1980 by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeal, which ruled a juror had been improperly dismissed for voicing concerns about capital punishment.
Prosecutors twice tried to persuade the court to reconsider that ruling, but failed.
And then things began to legally fall apart for Hartfield.
Then-Gov. Mark White, at the urging of prison officials, commuted Hartfield’s sentence from death to life imprisonment in 1983. Whether he had been informed that Hartfield’s conviction had been overturned is not known, according to Hartfield’s current attorney, Jeffrey Newberry of the Texas Innocence Project.
What is now known, however, is that the governor’s commutation was issued in error, Newberry said.
“He couldn’t commute the sentence because there was nothing left to commute,” Newberry told the Daily News Friday. “Mr. Hartfield should have had a new trial. But he didn’t get one.”
He didn’t get one because he had no legal counsel after his trial.
“So he just sat there,” Newberry said.
Fast-forward to 2006, when a fellow inmate told Hartfield that he should have received a new trial after his conviction was overturned.
“Someone helped him write documents on his own saying ‘Hey, I never got my new trial,”’ Newberry said. Eventually, his handwritten legal filings resulted in him receiving a court-appointed attorney while he fought to be released.
Over the next eight years, his case bounced from federal court to state courts. Meanwhile, the murder weapon, a pick-axe, has been lost and witnesses have died.
In a jailhouse interview last year, Hartfield said he was not angry about what happened to him.
He became a Christian behind bars, he said. “Being a God-fearing person, he doesn’t allow me to be bitter,” Hartfield said. “He allows me to be forgiving.” Newberry said he is appealing last week’s most recent ruling in Hartfield’s case.
He disputes Judge Estlinbaum assertion that no evidence was submitted of Hartfield’s mental incapacity. He also disputes the logic of the decision, saying the judge essentially ruled “Mr. Hartfield’s right to a speedy trial had not been violated … because the fact that he waited (to request a new trial) was an indication that he didn’t want a new trial,” Newberry said.
Separate proceedings to retry the criminal case are also underway, the attorney said. A hearing on that matter is scheduled for next month.