HOUSTON (AP) — The life sentence given to a Texas man who has remained in prison for 33 years since being pulled off of death row isn't valid, Texas' highest criminal court said Wednesday, possibly paving the way for a new trial or the inmate's release.
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals said once it overturned Jerry Hartfield's murder conviction in 1980 for the killing of a bus station worker four years earlier, there was no longer a death sentence for then-Gov. Mark White to commute.
The opinion was given in response to a rare formal request by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to confirm the validity of its ruling overturning Hartfield's conviction, in light of the governor's 1983 commutation. The New Orleans-based federal court made the request, which upheld a lower state court's ruling that the sentence was invalid.
"The status of the judgment of conviction is that (Hartfield) is under no conviction or sentence," Judge Lawrence Meyers wrote in a decision supported by the court's other eight judges. "Because there was no longer a death sentence to commute, the governor's order had no effect."
Hartfield, now 57, was convicted and sentenced to death for the 1976 robbery and killing of a Southeast Texas bus station employee. The criminal appeals court overturned his murder conviction, ruling that a potential juror improperly was dismissed after expressing reservations about the death penalty.
White commuted Hartfield's sentence in 1983 at the recommendation of the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, and he has remained in prison since then, unaware until a few years ago that his case was in legal limbo. Court documents in his case described him as an illiterate 5th-grade dropout with in IQ of 51, although Hartfield says he's learned to read and write while in prison.
In its failed appeal to the 5th Circuit, the state argued that Hartfield's life sentence should stand because he missed a one-year window in which to appeal aspects of his case.
Neither the prosecutor's office in Bay City nor Hartfield's attorney, Kenneth R. Hawk II, immediately responded to phone messages Wednesday seeking comment.
During a prison interview last year, Hartfield told The Associated Press that he's innocent, but that he doesn't hold a grudge about his predicament, which his lawyer last year described as "one-in-a-million."
"Being a God-fearing person, he doesn't allow me to be bitter," Hartfield said from prison.
Hartfield was 21 in June 1977 when he was convicted of murdering 55-year-old Eunice Lowe, a Bay City 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, 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 called "a bogus statement they had written against me."
The 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.
Jurors deliberated for 3½ hours before convicting Hartfield of murder and another 20 minutes to decide he should die.