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Another incredible case, courtesy of Texas' shaky legal system

His murder conviction was overturned, yet he's spent more than 30 years in Texas prison anyway

Some cases have no easy solutions.

A Texas judge last week set a September date for the retrial of a man sentenced to death in 1977 after being convicted of killing a woman at a bus station, a conviction that was overturned in 1980 because of problems with how the jury had been assembled. The state appealed that decision unsuccessfully, and in 1983, Gov. Mark White commuted the death sentence to life in prison.

But because there was no valid conviction, there was no valid death sentence to commute. The state never got around to scheduling a new trial. And there Jerry Hartfield, 58, a no-longer-convicted murderer, has sat for more than three decades.

Several issues intersect here. First, justice for the victim, Eunice Job Low, a 55-year-old ticket taker who was beaten to death, and for whose murder no one has been held accountable. Or you could argue that Hartfield has been held accountable, since he’s been in the Texas prison system now for nearly 40 years, just not convicted of a crime for most of that time. But the presumption under the law is that he is innocent until proven guilty.

Which is one of the other issues: This is an abject failure of the Texas legal system (again), and as the Dallas Morning News recently said, is “a case to rattle anyone's confidence.” So much time has passed, though, that there likely isn’t anyone left to be held accountable — prosecutors or defense lawyers — for letting the case slide.

So why was Hartfield allowed to languish? A mix of reasons. Without the death penalty hanging over his head, his lawyers sat back to wait for the state to push for a new trial. But that never came, and as time passed, the case fell through the cracks.

And why didn’t Hartfield insist he be released? Because, with an IQ in the low 50s, he didn’t understand what was happening. The dropped case didn’t come to light until 2006, when a fellow inmate pointed out to Hartfield that he shouldn’t be in prison because he was not convicted of a crime. New lawyers for Hartfield filed papers seeking his release, which a judge rejected, and set the retrial date for September.

This is the conundrum: There is no statute of limitations for murder, but there is a constitutional right to a speedy trial, which the state of Texas has violated in epic form. It‘s unclear how much sense it makes to try to hold a trial now. Prosecutors have said they have DNA evidence linking Hartfield to the crime, and a decades-old confession with which he was first convicted. But Hartfield’s lawyers are challenging the confession’s legality, and trying to get a new jury to place faith in DNA evidence that dates from the Jimmy Carter administration could be a hard sell.

Prosecutors have offered Hartfield a deal: life in prison in return for a guilty plea. But if his IQ is confirmed in the 50s, then Hartfield would be ineligible for the death penalty under more recent Supreme Court rulings that bar the execution of intellectually incapacitated adults. Which means that’s not much of a deal for Hartfield.

So what is the fair, and just, thing to do? Free a possible murderer after all this time because of the violation of his constitutional right to a speedy trial? Hold a trial based on dusty and challengeable evidence in which Hartfield could be found not guilty, releasing an intellectually challenged man into a modern world he can’t possible recognize?

Like I said, some cases have no easy solutions. My call would be to put the weight on the legal system’s responsibility to perform constitutionally, and find a way to release Hartfield over this egregious violation of his right to a speedy trial. But I suspect many of you will disagree.     

Follow Scott Martelle on Twitter @smartelle

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