Criminal Justice

Texas Man Remains in Prison for Years after Conviction Overturned

A remarkable amount of foot-dragging by state's justice system


You may or may not remember the remarkable story of Jerry Hartfield. He is the Texas man who has been languishing in prison now for nearly 12,000 days—more than 33 years—even though his murder conviction and life sentence were overturned and a new trial was ordered in his case in 1980. He is the man who fell through the cracks of a justice system still struggling to rectify its monumental error—and who is still falling.

In June, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, with a great deal of prodding from the federal courts, confirmed that Hartfield was currently in custody for no good reason—under penalty of no "conviction or sentence," the state judges ruled. And yet he still has not been released. Instead, prosecutors intend to retry him and are fighting to keep him in prison pending that retrial. What kind of trial? A trial at which there is likely to be precious little physical evidence against the defendant because, his attorneys say, it may have been lost over time.

Facing a retrial he could win, Hartfield says he is entitled to get help now, today, because his constitutional right to a speedy trial has long since been violated. If the Sixth Amendment means anything anymore, the defense says, it means that the state must try a man at some point before he has spent a third of a century behind bars for no legitimate reason. He should be immediately released from custody, they say, even if prosecutors want to re-try him for a murder they say he committed in 1977.