Thursday, April 24, 2014

Waiting for Godot

For more than 33 years an "intellectually disabled" man has sat in a Texas prison waiting for the new trial he was granted.

In 1977 Jerry Hartfield was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to die. Three years later the conviction and death sentence were overturned because a woman with reservations about the death penalty was struck from the panel. In 1983 the Court of Criminal Appeals formally vacated Mr. Hartfield's conviction and Gov. Mark White sought to commute his sentence to life in prison.

In the meantime, the court never notified the Governor's office that the conviction had been vacated and no one from the Governor's office notified the court that Gov. White was commuting the sentence. And, just to make matters worse, local officials told the court that its mandate for a new trial had been carried out when no such thing had ever happened.

While all of this was going on no one bothered to tell Mr. Hartfield that his conviction and sentence had been vacated.

Now, before we go any further, it is important to note that Mr. Hartfield's IQ is roughly 51 - less than the threshold for mental retardation.

In 2006 Mr. Hartfield learned that the Court of Criminal Appeals had ordered a new trial. For the next seven years Mr. Hartfield's attorneys and prosecutors fought over Mr. Hartfield's right to a speedy trial. The Court of Criminal Appeals all but told Mr. Hartfield's attorneys that his right to a speedy trial had been violated by the failure of the state to carry out the court's mandate.

At the same time prosecutors argued that this developmentally challenged man had waived his right to a speedy trial because he never pursued a new trial. They argued that a man with an IQ in the 50's was able t concoct a plan wherein he sat in jail for three decades in an attempt to prevent the State of Texas from retying him.

In other words, prosecutors argued that not carrying out the court's mandate to retry Mr. Hartfield's case back in 1983 wasn't their fault but was, instead, the fault of Mr. Hartfield.

The judge swallowed the state's argument hook, line and sinker and placed the blame for Mr. Hartfield's plight squarely on Mr. Hartfield's shoulders. In a ruling that can best be described as schizophrenic, Judge Craig Estlinbaum found that Mr. Hartfield was the beneficiary of the 33 year delay because he would be far less likely to be sentenced to death today; but in the same ruling he found that Mr. Hartfield's ability to mount a defense would be compromised due to the death of witnesses and the loss of evidence over the years.

One of the crueler ironies of the case is that since the death sentence had been set aside, Mr. Hartfield wasn't eligible to have an attorney appointed to represent him on post-conviction matters. And with an IQ of below 60, Mr. Hartfield had no clue as to what to do.

I don't know what happened on that night back in 1976 in Bay City, Texas. I do know that what has happened to Jerry Hartfield in the intervening years isn't right. He won the right to a new trial but that right was never communicated to him. Matagorda County prosecutors acted in bad faith and are now arguing that they have clean hands.

Mr. Hartfield should be freed from prison today. The state should not be allowed to benefit from their actions (and inactions). The fact that a man has sat behind bars for 33 years waiting for a new trial is yet another damning indictment of our criminal (in)justice system

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