After Holding Mentally Disabled Man Hostage for 34 Years, Texas Rules He Conspired to Keep Himself in Jail

Jerry Hartfield, a poor, illiterate and intellectually disabled black man has been rotting in prison for 34 years, despite the fact that he had neither a valid conviction nor sentence. Hartfield was tried and convicted for murder in 1977, but the conviction was overturned due to prosecutorial misconduct in 1980. Officials proceeded to forget about him and leave him locked up in a cell for several decades. Shockingly, last week, a judge ruled that despite this obviously egregious injustice, rather than being freed, Hartfield can now be retried. 

This horrible example of justice miscarried, Texas style, was reported and commented on in a lengthy article in The Week by Andrew Cohen, who says this about the recent ruling:

In the latest decision, the judge ruled that even though state and local officials clearly were negligent in letting Hartfield slip through the cracks all these decades, there is nothing in the Constitution that provides him with any protection from being retried. Not the Sixth Amendment's guarantee of a speedy trial. Not the undisputed fact that key evidence in that long-ago trial — like the alleged murder weapon, for example — has disappeared. Not the fact that there is no proof that Hartfied, with an IQ testing far below standards for mental retardation, strategized to keep himself in prison for 30 years as a way of avoiding a retrial.

It's not just the third of a century of unlawful confinement that is egregious here. It's the fact that 10 months have passed since the state courts in Texas (after many years of prodding) first acknowledged the terrible mistake that was made in this case. Even this lesser period of delay is unconscionable. Jerry Hartfield, who first would have been eligible for parole in 2003 had Texas followed the law, should be free.

A quick summary of the facts in the case: Hartfield was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death in 1977 for the killing of Eunice Lowe. Three years later, the verdict and the sentence were overturned, because, it was found, that prosecutors had unconstitutionally barred a woman who said she had reservations about the death penalty from serving on the jury.

So, new trial, right? Nope. Texas took a different tack, according to Cohen. The state tried to defend the conviction and just change the sentence from death to life in prison. Instead, Hartfield's conviction was formally vacated in 1983, Gov. Mark White moved to commute Hartfield's sentence 11 days later.

Then a series of errors began. As Cohen recounts:

The courts did not notify the governor's office or the members of the Board of Pardons and Parole that Hartfield's conviction and sentence had been vacated. Executive branch officials did not follow up on the purported commutation. Instead, public officials in the county where Hartfield had been tried notified the Court of Criminal Appeals that its mandate — to give him a new trial — had been carried out when in fact it had not. Hartfield was not told about this at the time. If his lawyer knew he certainly didn't raise any immediate flags. There was no cross-check. The justice system simply broke.

From 1983 until 2008, this severely intellectually compromised man had no lawyer, and no one to stand up for him. In 2006, with the help of other inmates, Hartfield started to ask questions about his legal status. Seven years passed before the Texas Court of Appeals finally acknowledged that he had been wrongly imprisoned all those years. They also said his right to a speedy trial had been violated, in something of an understatement.

So prosecutors moved to retry him. All they had, according to Cohen, was an old coerced confession from a man with an IQ of 51. Perversely, they also argued that Hartfield committed fraud by keeping himself imprisoned in order to avoid the speedy retrial guaranteed under the Sixth Amendment. 

Now, you could say that prosecutors make crazy arguments sometimes. That's why we have judges. But in this case, the judge bought it.

More outrage from Cohen:

The Constitution did not require Jerry Hartfield, mentally retarded and unable to read, to jump up and down all those years and beg the state to retry him. There was no lawyer in his corner during the vast majority of that time to look after his rights. And Judge Estlinbaum acknowledged that Texas had been negligent in its handling of this case. But you know what else this judge found? That "there is no evidence that Hartfield has suffered any anxiety relating to his pretrial detention." Now, tell me please, if you were locked in prison for 33 years without being convicted of a crime would you suffer any anxiety?

Read the rest of Cohen's story, and his pointed commentary on it here.

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