In 1977, a Texas man named Jerry Hartfield was convicted of murder. His conviction was tossed out three years later because the process used to select his jury was unconstitutional. Yet Hartfield was neither freed from prison nor given a new trial. Last April, a Texas trial judge held that he must remain in prison, despite the fact that the sole legal basis for his detention was overturned nearly 34 years ago, because Hartfield did not actively seek a new trial.
Hartfield is intellectually disabled. His IQ is estimated to be only 51.
On Thursday, Hartfield’s case grew even more similar to a Franz Kafka novel with a Texas Court of Appeals decision refusing to grant him relief.
The holding of the appeals court’s decision is that Hartfield erred by filing what is known as a “pretrial habeas” petition, when the appropriate remedy “for an alleged violation of one’s constitutional right to a speedy trial” is “a pretrial motion to set aside the charging instrument on speedy-trial grounds.” The reason why this highly legalistic distinction matters is that, while a denial of a pretrial habeas petition can sometimes be appealed immediately, “the denial of a speedy-trial pretrial motion to quash an indictment may be appealed only after conviction and sentencing.”
So, in case all of that is not clear. Hartfield asked a court to order him freed because his speedy trial rights were violated by the fact that Texas imprisoned him for more than three decades without trial. Yet a Texas appeals court just told him that it is powerless to help him until after his criminal trial for an offense Texas refused to try him on for over 30 years.
Texas, for what it is worth, finally began to set the process in motion to retry Hartfield earlier this year, though it is unclear how they plan to put a case together against Hartfield nearly four decades after his alleged crime. According to the New York Daily News, “the murder weapon, a pick-axe, has been lost and witnesses have died.”
Hartfield, for his part, claims that he is innocent and that he was originally convicted based on a false confession.