Texas Inmate Jerry Hartfield Still Awaiting Retrial Ordered in 1980
Jerry Hartfield was 23 years old when his capital conviction for the 1976 robbery and murder of a Bay City bus station worker was thrown out. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals overturned his murder conviction in 1980 after finding that a juror had been improperly dismissed for expressing reservations about capital punishment.
After two failed attempts to get the court to revisit the ruling, then-Gov. Mark White commuted Hartfield’s sentence from death to life in prison in 1983. Then the case fell off the state’s radar.
“Nothing got filed,” Hartfield, who is now 56, told the Associated Press. “The had me thinking my case was on appeal for 27 years.”
“Inmates are often the last to know and unable to sort through the multiple legal decisions affecting their case,” wrote Jeff Chin of the Innocence Project. “Plus, when a case is overturned, it does not necessarily mean immediate release. It would be common for someone like Hartfield to assume he would be retried, especially if his attorney did not notify him.”
Recently, a federal judge in Houston ruled that Hartfield’s conviction and sentence were invalid when they were overturned on appeal. There was technically no sentence for Gov. White to commute. But the state has contested a ruling by the 5th US Circuit Court of Appeals, blocking Hartfield’s release or retrial.
Last October, a 5th Circuit panel agreed with the district court ruling but took the unusual step of requesting that the Texas appeals court confirm its 1980 decision to overturn Hartfield’s conviction.
Kenneth R. Hawk II, Hartfield’s lawyer, calls his client’s case “one-in-a-million.”
“When you see it, it’s kind of breathtaking,” Hawk told the AP. “It was a tough story for him so far and it’s not over yet… The bottom line is the commutation came after a mandate was issued. It wasn’t valid and it’s time for him to get a new trial.”
But Hartfield’s trial lawyers stopped representing him as soon as his death sentence was commuted.
“When [the] government commuted the sentence, that’s when our obligation to Hartfield ended,” Robert Scardino, his former lead trial attorney, told the AP.
In June 1977, Hartfield was convicted of murdering Eunice Lowe, a 55-year-old bus station ticketing agent, and stealing $3,000 and Lowe’s car. He was 21. Hartfield called a confession cited by police as “a bogus statement they had written against me.” The defendant attempted to plead inanity, a tactic supported by a psychiatric evaluation that labeled him “as crazy a human being as there was.”
It took jurors less than four hours to return a guilty verdict and 20 minutes for them to recommend a death sentence. Scardino said the jury foreman told him that the jury were “all farmers and ranchers down here, and when one of our animals goes crazy, we shoot it.”
Scardino warned that if Hartfield does get the retrial he’s been waiting for he risks being sentenced to death again.
“You have to think: Why would you undo something like that now when you might be looking at something like the death penalty?”
But Hartfield, whose IQ was assessed at 51 (but says he’s since learned to read), cannot be legally executed since the Supreme Court banned executions of the mentally retarded in 2002.
Incredibly, Hartfield, who is now a devout Christian, says he is not angry that he has spend so long behind bars without justice.
“Being a God-fearing person… doesn’t allow me to be bitter,” he told the AP. “[God] allows me to be forgiving. The things that cause damage to other people, including myself, that’s something I have to forgive. In order to be forgiven, you have to forgive.”