Jerry Hartfield, an intellectually disabled man whose conviction and death sentence was overturned in 1980, was released from prison on June 12 after Texas kept him locked up for 35 years without a valid conviction.
Mr. Hartfield, a Black man from Kansas, was arrested in 1976 and charged with the murder and sexual assault of a white woman in Bay City, Texas, near Houston, because his fingerprints were on a soda bottle found in the bus station where the body was discovered. Police obtained a confession from Mr. Hartfield, whose IQ is in the 50s or 60s, which he says was coerced. He has always maintained his innocence. In 1977, Mr. Hartfield was convicted and sentenced to death.
In 1980, a Texas appeals court reversed his conviction and ordered a new trial because prosecutors had improperly dismissed a juror because she had reservations about the death penalty. Prosecutors sought to avoid a new trial by asking the governor to commute Mr. Hartfield’s death sentence to life imprisonment without parole, but in 1983, the court again ordered the State to retry Mr. Hartfield.
Soon after, the governor commuted Mr. Hartfield’s sentence to life without parole. The State decided this resolved the case, despite the appeals court’s ordering prosecutors to conduct a new trial. Mr. Hartfield’s trial lawyer believed the commutation was ineffective, but nonetheless failed to demand a new trial.
After waiting 23 years, Mr. Hartfield found another prisoner to help him write requests to state judges in 2006; they were all summarily rejected. A federal judge appointed him a lawyer and, in 2009, ruled that Mr. Hartfield had been illegally imprisoned since 1980 without any conviction. But the case was transferred to another federal judge who rejected Mr. Hartfield’s claims in 2011 because the judge said he had failed to exhaust state remedies.
Mr. Hartfield appealed, and in 2012, the federal appeals court agreed he was imprisoned without any conviction but rather than order his immediate release, it remanded the case to the state appeals court. In 2013, that court found he had been unlawfully imprisoned for 30 years, but still refused to release him. Instead, it remanded to the trial court, which concluded Mr. Hartfield had not suffered much by waiting all those years, and anyway, the delay was his fault. The judge found prosecutors were negligent but showed no bad faith in failing to retry Mr. Hartfield for three decades, so it gave them another chance to convict Mr. Hartfield.
Mr. Hartfield was retried in 2015. The State’s key witnesses had died, so their testimony was read into the record with no opportunity for defense questioning. All physical evidence had been lost so it could not be challenged by the defense. No mitigating evidence could be presented from Mr. Hartfield’s family, most of whom had also passed away. Mr. Hartfield was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
He appealed, arguing that his constitutional right to a speedy trial had been violated. In January, the Texas appeals court agreed and, finding the delay was extraordinary and the State’s conduct was not merely negligent, finally ordered Mr. Hartfield’s release.
Mr. Hartfield walked out of Hutchins State Jail in Dallas last Monday, reuniting with his nieces. Remarkably, he told The Marshall Project, “I am not bitter. I am not angry. [The prosecutors] were only doing their jobs, and I respect them for that.” He expressed gratitude for the attorneys and advocates who helped win his release. “It is a blessing that God placed them in my life,” he said. “I am just overwhelmed.”
This case demonstrates how racial bias, prosecutorial misconduct, and the failure to provide adequate counsel to poor defendants undermine the reliability of convictions in capital cases, and exemplifies a systemic indifference to wrongfully imprisoning an African American man for four decades that is a legacy of our nation’s history of racial injustice. EJI believes we must truthfully confront this history in order to effectively address the injustices of our mass incarceration system today.