GATESVILLE, Texas (AP) — Jerry Hartfield was still a young man when an uncle visited him in prison to tell him that his murder conviction had been overturned and he would get a new trial.
Not long afterward, he was moved off of death row.
“A sergeant told me to pack my stuff and I wouldn’t return. I’ve been waiting ever since for that new trial,” Hartfield, now 56, said during a recent interview at the prison near Gatesville where he’s serving life for the 1976 robbery and killing of a Bay City bus station worker. He says he’s innocent.
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals overturned Hartfield’s murder conviction in 1980 because it found a potential juror improperly was dismissed for expressing reservations about the death penalty. The state tried twice but failed to get the court to re-examine that ruling, and on March 15, 1983 — 11 days after the court’s second rejection — then-Gov. Mark White commuted Hartfield’s sentence to life in prison.
At that point, with Hartfield off death row and back in the general prison population, the case became dormant.
“Nothing got filed. They had me thinking my case was on appeal for 27 years,” said Hartfield, who is described in court documents as an illiterate fifth-grade dropout with an IQ of 51, but who says he has since learned to read and has become a devout Christian.
A federal judge in Houston recently ruled that Hartfield’s conviction and sentence ceased to exist when the appeals court overturned them — meaning there was no sentence for White to commute. But Hartfield isn’t likely to go free or be retried soon because the state has challenged a 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision favorable to Hartfield, arguing he missed a one-year window in which to appeal aspects of his case.
A 5th Circuit panel of the New Orleans court agreed with the district court in an October ruling, but last month it made a rare, formal request to the Texas appeals court asking it to confirm its decades-old decision to overturn Hartfield’s conviction.
Hartfield’s current attorney, Kenneth R. Hawk II, recently described the case as a “one-in-a-million” situation in which an inmate has been stuck in the prison system for more than three decades because no one seems to know what to do with him.
“When you see it, it’s kind of breathtaking,” he said. “It was 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.”
Several factors appear to have contributed to Hartfield’s unusual predicament.
Hartfield said that when his uncle read him the article about his conviction being overturned, he didn’t fully grasp the meaning of it. Furthermore, Hartfield’s trial lawyers, who worked on his initial appeal, stopped representing him once his death sentence was commuted, said Robert Scardino, who was the lead trial attorney.
“When governor commuted the sentence, that’s when our obligations to Hartfield ended,” Scardino said.
Hartfield was 21 in June 1977 when he was convicted of murdering 55-year-old Eunice Lowe, a bus station ticketing agent who was beaten with a pickaxe and robbed. Her car and nearly $3,000 were stolen. Lowe’s daughter found her body in a storeroom at the station.