BAY CITY, Texas (AP) — A 59-year-old mentally ill Texas man imprisoned for more than 35 years despite his original murder conviction being overturned was found guilty a second time on Wednesday.
Jerry Hartfield, 59, was convicted of murder in the September 1976 slaying of 55-year-old Eunice Lowe, who sold tickets at the bus station in Bay City, about 100 miles southwest of Houston.
The sentencing phase will begin Thursday, the judge said. Prosecutors said Hartfield faces five to 99 years in prison or a life sentence, but said before the trial that he could be immediately eligible for parole because of time served. Jurors decided against a conviction of capital murder, which carried an automatic sentence of life in prison.
Neither the defense attorneys nor the prosecutors would comment on the verdict, though the two defense attorneys fist-bumped after the jurors were let out of the courtroom.
Lisa Tanner, an assistant Texas attorney general assisting prosecutors, told jurors that Hartfield "butchered" Lowe "for a little bit of money." Evidence showed nearly $3,000 and Lowe's car were taken, and the car was recovered in Houston only after Hartfield told investigators where they could find it.
Testimony in the trial showed the woman was beaten with a pickaxe that left her fatally wounded and that her attacker had sex with her after she was dead.
"It's about what he did to that sweet lady," Tanner said. "She didn't deserve it."
Hartfield's lead attorney, Jay Wooten, had said during closing arguments that missing and shaky evidence and a questionable confession should be enough to keep him from being convicted again. The defense also had suggested Hartfield shouldn't be convicted of capital murder because the robbery was an afterthought and not directly related to the killing.
"A lot of things are missing from this case," Wooten said. "Like anything you have at your home since 1976, there are parts missing, there are parts that no longer fit."
Hartfield initially was on death row; prosecutors decided against seeking a death sentence in the retrial after evidence showed he's mentally impaired.
Hartfield's original 1977 conviction was thrown out on appeal in 1980 because of a problem with jury selection. Gov. Mark White in 1983 commuted his sentence to life, but federal courts more recently decided the governor didn't have a sentence to commute.
Hartfield's attorneys said the murder weapon couldn't be found and Lowe's car no longer existed. Many of the more than 125 people on the prosecution's witness list are dead or couldn't be found and some witness testimony from the 1977 trial was read into the retrial. Wooten said that meant he couldn't cross-examine them, raising questions about the fairness of the retrial.
Hartfield was working construction in the Bay City area at the time of Lowe's death. He was arrested within days in Wichita, Kansas, and gave a confession that defense attorneys were unable to suppress.
"I tell you, I don't believe the statement was voluntary," Wooten said, accusing investigators "picking and choosing" what to include in the statement.
Prosecutors said Hartfield repeatedly had been read his constitutional rights and the statement was "by the book."