GATESVILLE, Texas — Jerry Hartfield was still a young man when an uncle visited him in prison to tell him that his murder conviction had been overturned and he would get a new trial.
Not long afterward, he was moved off of death row.
“A sergeant told me to pack my stuff and I wouldn’t return. I’ve been waiting ever since for that new trial,” Hartfield, now 56, said during a recent interview at the prison near Gatesville where he’s serving life for the 1976 robbery and killing of a Bay City bus station worker. He says he’s innocent.
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals overturned Hartfield’s murder conviction in 1980 because it found a potential juror improperly was dismissed for expressing reservations about the death penalty. The state tried twice but failed to get the court to re-examine that ruling, and on March 15, 1983 – 11 days after the court’s second rejection – then-Gov. Mark White commuted Hartfield’s sentence to life in prison.
At that point, with Hartfield off death row and back in the general prison population, the case became dormant.
“Nothing got filed. They had me thinking my case was on appeal for 27 years,” said Hartfield, who is described in court documents as an illiterate fifth-grade dropout with an IQ of 51, but who says he has since learned to read and has become a devout Christian.
A federal judge in Houston recently ruled that Hartfield’s conviction and sentence ceased to exist when the appeals court overturned them – meaning there was no sentence for White to commute. But Hartfield isn’t likely to go free or be retried soon because the state has challenged a 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision favorable to Hartfield, arguing he missed a one-year window in which to appeal aspects of his case.
A 5th Circuit panel of the New Orleans court agreed with the district court in an October ruling, but last month it made a rare, formal request to the Texas appeals court asking it to confirm its decades-old decision to overturn Hartfield’s conviction.
Hartfield’s current attorney, Kenneth R. Hawk II, recently described the case as a “one-in-a-million” situation in which an inmate has been stuck in the prison system for more than three decades because no one seems to know what to do with him.
“When you see it, it’s kind of breathtaking,” he said. “It was a tough story for him so far and it’s not over yet. ... The bottom line is the commutation came after a mandate was issued. It wasn’t valid and it’s time for him to get a new trial.”
Several factors appear to have contributed to Hartfield’s unusual predicament.
Hartfield said that when his uncle read him the article about his conviction being overturned, he didn’t fully grasp the meaning of it. Furthermore, Hartfield’s trial lawyers, who worked on his initial appeal, stopped representing him once his death sentence was commuted, said Robert Scardino, who was the lead trial attorney.
“When governor commuted the sentence, that’s when our obligations to Hartfield ended,” Scardino said.
Hartfield was 21 in June 1977 when he was convicted of murdering 55-year-old Eunice Lowe, a bus station ticketing agent who was beaten with a pickaxe and robbed. Her car and nearly $3,000 were stolen. Lowe’s daughter found her body in a storeroom at the station.
At the time, Hartfield, who grew up in Altus, Okla., had been working on the construction of a nuclear power plant near Bay City, which is about 100 miles southwest of Houston. He was arrested within days in Wichita, Kan., and while being returned to Texas, he made a confession to officers that he calls “a bogus statement they had written against me.” That alleged confession was among the key evidence used to convict Hartfield, along with an unused bus ticket found at the crime scene that had his fingerprints on it and testimony from witnesses who said he had talked about needing $3,000.
Scardino said he tried using an insanity defense for Hartfield and that psychiatrists called by the defense described Hartfield as “as crazy a human being as there was.”
Virginia Higdon, who lived next door to Lowe and knew her most of her life, told the AP that she spoke to Lowe the day she was killed and her friend complained of about a man who refused to leave the station.
“‘I can’t get rid of this guy. He’s just sitting there eating candy, a bag of candy,”’ Higdon said her friend told her. “And it was Jerry Hartfield.”
She said it’s “absurd” that Hartfield might ever be released or retried.
Jurors deliberated for 3˝ hours before convicting Hartfield of murder and another 20 minutes to decide he should die, Scardino said. He said the jury foreman later told him the jurors were “all farmers and ranchers down here, and when one of our animals goes crazy, we shoot it.”
Matagorda County District Attorney Steven Reis said with the appeal still pending, it’s premature to discuss a possible retrial of Hartfield. Lowe’s killing was particularly bloody and investigators found semen on her body, but Reis declined to say whether there was crime scene evidence from the case that could undergo DNA testing, which wasn’t available when Lowe was killed.
Scardino said that if Hartfield’s confession, which he believes authorities illegally obtained, is allowed at a retrial, Hartfield risks being sent back to death row.
“You have to think: Why would you undo something like that now when you might be looking at something like the death penalty?” he said.
But in 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed executing mentally impaired people, a threshold generally accepted as below the IQ of 70.
Hartfield insists that he’s not angry that he’s spent nearly all of his entire adult life locked up, and he says he holds no grudges.
“Being a God-fearing person, he doesn’t allow me to be bitter,” he said. “He allows me to be forgiving. The things that cause damage to other people, including myself, that’s something I have to forgive.
“In order to be forgiven, you have to forgive.”