DALLAS (AP) — A Texas inmate who was imprisoned for 35 years while waiting for a new trial after a court overturned his murder conviction should be set free, an appellate court ruled.
Jerry Hartfield was finally convicted again in 2015 in the 1976 killing of 55-year-old Eunice Lowe, but a court ruled Thursday that his constitutional right to a speedy trial was violated. The Court of Appeals for the 13th District of Texas reversed the conviction and ordered that the case against Hartfield, now 60, be dismissed.
"The State's negligence in this case created a criminal justice nightmare for Hartfield and the system at-large, as he sat in the custody of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice for thirty-two years without a conviction," the panel wrote, adding later that release was the only remedy. "We are deeply mindful that our conclusion today means that a defendant who may be guilty of murder may go free."
It wasn't clear Friday when or if Hartfield could be released or if the state would appeal the decision to the Court of Criminal Appeals, Texas' highest criminal court. A phone message left with a spokesman for the Texas attorney general's office was not immediately returned.
Hartfield originally was sentenced to death in the slaying of Lowe, a bus ticket saleswoman in Bay City, about 100 miles southwest of Houston. A jury heard testimony that Lowe had been beaten to death with a pickaxe, some of her valuables had been stolen and that her body had been sexually abused.
But that conviction was thrown out on appeal because of a problem with jury selection and a retrial was ordered. In 1983, Gov. Mark White commuted Hartfield's death sentence to life in prison in an effort to avoid the retrial, but courts recently found the sentence had already been overturned and vacated by the time he issued the commutation.
Hartfield's attorneys tried to have the indictment set aside before his 2015 retrial, but the lower court denied his claim he had been denied a speedy trial, saying he had failed to raise the issue for more than 23 years. A jury subsequently convicted him of a lesser murder charge and sentenced him to life in prison.
One of Hartfield's attorneys, Jeffrey Newberry, said Friday he didn't know whether Hartfield knows about the decision yet. He said he's requested a phone call with Hartfield, who is at the state's Allred Unit in Iowa City, near the Oklahoma border.
"The things that happened in this case — critical evidence was lost, the murder weapon was lost, the vehicle the state alleges he took was lost long ago ... these are the reasons we have a Sixth Amendment right to a speedy trial. The framers realized that your ability to defend yourself diminishes as time passes," he said. "We're very happy with the court's decision, but it's definitely a tragedy that it took ... 30 years."
Associated Press writer Michael Graczyk in Houston contributed to this report.
This story has been corrected to show the inmate's last name is Hartfield, not Hartsfield.