This Man Waited 38 Years For His Day In Court and It Never Came

What we can learn about the Texas prison system from Jerry Hartfield’s decades-long struggle for justice.

By Rhonda FanningAugust 11, 2015 6:30 pm| ,

For 35 years, Jerry Hartfield sat in a prison awaiting trial. And now, he’s finally getting one. Hartfield was convicted in 1977 of murdering a woman in Bay City. He was sentenced to death, even though by today’s standards his IQ of 67 is considered mentally impaired.

Three years after that conviction, in 1980, it was overturned because of problems with jury selection. The governor of Texas at the time, Mark White, commuted the sentence to life in prison. The problem? The underlying conviction has been invalidated, so there wasn’t even a conviction to commute. Hartfield waited for years in prison for a trial that never came.

Michael Graczyk is a Houston-based reported for the Associated Press, and he says the Hartfield case is both intriguing and troubling. “It’s a fascinating case,” Gracyzk says. “He’s become kind of the victim of perhaps the perfect storm of timing, lawyer representation and mental impairment, and this all has come together to leave him in prison without a conviction.”

What happened that would allow Hartfield — or anyone — to sit in a Texas prison without a conviction for over 30 years? “His attorneys who handled the initial appeal dropped off after the trial, and there was the perfunctory, obligatory appeal of a death sentence, and then after that it kind of fell through the cracks,” Gracyzk says. “It wasn’t until a jailhouse lawyer in prison, an inmate colleague of Hartfield, was going through his case after he mentioned it in the prison law library.”

It was at that point that Hartfield’s fellow inmate noticed something in his case. “[He] said ‘You know Jerry, I don’t think you have a conviction’,” Gracyzk says. The inmate explained to Hartfield that without a conviction on the books, commuting a sentence was impossible.

So Hartfield started working with his fellow inmate-turned-legal aide. “They got together and they hand wrote an appeal to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and [they] rejected it twice,” Gracyzk says. “So they went to federal court and the judge in Houston finally agreed with them and ‘You know you don’t have a conviction, so there was nothing for Mark White to commute back in 1983.'”

The State of Texas has previously argued that Hartfield did have a conviction and violated regulations by not filing an appeal within a year of the conviction. But with the federal ruling in Houston final, Hartfield will finally see his day in court.

But what does Hartfield’s case say about the Texas prison system in general? Does this mean that other individuals could sit in a Texas prison for 30 years with no conviction? “You have to take into consideration [Hartfield’s] mental impairment,” Gracyzk says. “When he got to prison he didn’t know how to read and write… and his IQ back in the trial in ’77 was indicated at about 51.”

Hartfield’s low IQ score raises questions today about the initial arrest. The system acknowledges that Hartfield got his Miranda warnings, but there was a court debate about whether he understood the meaning of those warnings.

“The Miranda warnings are written to be understood by someone at an 8th or 9th grade level,” Gracyzk says. “Hartfield was comprehending at about a 2nd grade level.”
Graczyk says while a case exactly like Hartfield’s is unlikely, given changes in legal protections for individuals with mental impairment, there’s still a lot to be learned from the case.