Former Texas death row inmate Jerry Harfield finally released from prison after 35 years without a valid conviction

Jerry Hartfield was released from a Texas prison on June 12, 2017, after serving more than three decades without a valid conviction.  He had been convicted and sentenced to death for the 1976 slaying of 55-year-old Eunice Lowe in Bay City.  He allegedly confessed to the crime, “confessed, that is, the way a black man with an IQ later found to be in the 50s or 60s could ever legitimately confess to anything in the South in the 1970s.” (The Marshall Project, “The Man Who Spent 35 Years in Prison Without a Trial,” June 12, 2017).

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (CCA) overturned Hartfield’s death sentence and original conviction in 1980 because of improper jury selection. He was granted a new trial, which he did not receive for reasons that remain unclear.

Then-Texas Governor Mark White attempted to commute Hartfield’s sentence in 1983. The CCA ruled, however, that he could not commute the sentence because there was no legal conviction. Hartfield spent the next 35 years in prison without a valid conviction in place.  According to The Marshall Project, “If it were not for a fellow prisoner and the public defenders who eventually discovered the mistake, the 61-year-old intellectually disabled man likely would have died alone in his cell, his story as lost as he was.”

After extensive legal wrangling among state and federal courts that lasted more than seven years, the CCA finally acknowledged that Hartfield had been improperly incarcerated.  Instead of resolving the case, however, the court reassigned it to another judge. According to The Marshall Project, “That judge concluded that Hartfield was to blame for the long delay in asserting his rights and he had not suffered much by waiting all those years.”  The judge ordered a new trial (the one ordered by the CCA back in 1980).

On August 19, 2015, 59-year-old Jerry Hartfield was convicted for a second time in the murder of Eunice Lowe, even though two key witnesses had died and physical evidence from the crime had disappeared.  Prosecutors did not seek another death sentence because of his intellectual impairments.  He was found guilty of the lesser offense of murder and sentenced to life in prison.

The story did not end there, however. From The Marshall Project:

Hartfield and his attorneys appealed the trial judge’s ruling, arguing his constitutional right to a speedy trial had been violated and he should be released. And this time the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, as much a player as a referee in this case, finally rescued Hartfield. In a January ruling, the court ruled that Hartfield’s speedy trial rights had been violated and in a manner in which only his release could remedy. The delay was obviously profound, and the state’s conduct during that time could not be described merely as negligence, the court found.

And so, after a total of 40 years of incarceration, Jerry Hartfield is now a free man.

Listen to Hartfield’s attorney, Jeff Newberry, and Andrew Cohen, senior editor at The Marshall Project, discuss the case on “The Takeaway”.