HOUSTON – A Kansas man who remains in a Texas prison more than 30 years after his murder conviction was overturned has become the subject of a fight between the state, which insists he's being legally held, and a federal appeals court that says he's wrongly imprisoned.
Jerry Hartfield, whose conviction was overturned in 1983, maintains his constitutional right to a speedy trial has been violated after the state failed to retry him but also didn't set him free.
A federal appeals court has agreed with him, but he's unlikely to receive a new trial soon after the same court, in a spat with the state attorney general's office, sent his case back to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals on Wednesday with a request that it define the status of its ruling overturning Hartfield's conviction. If the Texas appeals court accepts the federal appeals court's request, it could set off a new series of legal proceedings that ties up the attorney general's office and drags out the case.
Hartfield's federal public defender, Kenneth R. Hawk II, said his client has been "stuck" in the Texas prison system for more than three decades because no one seems to know what to do with his case.
"It's one of those one-in-a-million deals," Hawk said. "When you see it, it's kind of breathtaking."
Hartfield, now 56, was 21 when he was convicted in the 1976 slaying of a 55-year-old ticket agent at a bus station in Bay City. Eunice Job Lowe was beaten with a pickax and her body left in a bus station storeroom, where her 19-year-old daughter found it.
Hartfield was convicted and sentenced to die, but in 1980, a Texas appeals court ordered a new trial, saying a potential juror had been wrongly excluded from the original trial because of her reservations about imposing the death penalty.
State attorneys twice requested a rehearing on that decision, with the appeals court rejecting their second request on March 4, 1983.
Eleven days later, then Gov. Mark White commuted Hartfield's death sentence to life in prison. At that point, both sides let the case lie for about 20 years.
Hartfield, described in court documents as illiterate and mentally impaired with an IQ of 51, got the ball rolling again in 2006, when he filed a handwritten writ of habeas corpus with the help of another inmate. The writ essentially said he should be retried or set free. It was rejected twice by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals before Hartfield submitted it in the federal court system.
A judge there agreed with him.
"Hartfield's position is as straightforward and subtle as a freight train," U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes said.
The state had claimed that Hartfield was legally serving the life sentence ordered by White. It said he had had one year under federal rules to file an appeal on any aspect of his case, and that year started when the retrial was ordered in 1983.
Hughes disagreed, saying the clock on an appeal doesn't start until there's a conviction, and none exists in this case.
"The court's mandate was never recalled, its decision never overturned, the conviction never reinstated; yet Hartfield never received the `entirely new trial' ordered by the court," he wrote.
The state's appeal of Hughes' decision eventually ended up before a three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which described the state's defense of Hartfield's incarceration as "disturbingly unprofessional" in its Wednesday decision.
The panel had said in October that it couldn't make a formal decision on Hartfield's complaint that his constitutional right to a speedy trial has been violated because the issue hadn't been resolved yet by his state trial court in Wharton County, about 60 miles southwest of Houston.
But the federal appeals judges left little doubt about their position, saying the state appeals court reversal 30 years ago meant "there was no longer a death sentence to commute, and thus the governor's order could not have had any effect."
The state's request for a rehearing on that decision led to Wednesday's ruling.
Hartfield, who is originally from Wichita, Kan., has been moved to a Texas prison hospital for an undisclosed illness and was not available for an interview.
Hawk said he'd discussed the court activity with Hartfield but found it useless to write him.
"Because he can't read it," he said.