Thirty years after being 'freed', Texas man still waiting for his freedom

Legal row saw death sentence for murder in 1977 both overturned and commuted to life in jail

New York

A convoluted legal row has erupted over a Texas prison inmate who has been behind bars for more than 30 years after his case was overturned.

In 1977, Jerry Hartfield was convicted of murdering a bus station ticket agent in Bay City, about 80 miles south-west of Houston. Eunice Job Lowe was beaten to death with a pickaxe and left in a storeroom when her daughter, 19, found her body. Mr Hartfield, 21 at the time, was sentenced to death.

Three years later, his conviction was overturned after appeal judges ruled a juror being struck down in the original case because of reservations about the death penalty was unconstitutional. But he was never released, as the case was passed between courts, lawyers and the Texas Governor for years. This eventually led to his sentence being commuted to life imprisonment, even though his conviction had never been reinstated.

About a month after the 1980 ruling by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, state prosecutors asked the court to allow a second hearing in the matter. They wanted the appeal judges to either reduce the sentence to life, or allow them enough time to ask the Governor to do so. Two years on, in 1983, the court finally decided that it wasn't going to hold another hearing. Instead, it said the lower court should go ahead and hold a retrial.

But, as Hartfield turned 27, the state trial judge, the district attorney and the sheriff sent a letter to the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles recommending that Governor Mark White commute his sentence. A retrial, they argued, had become harder to conduct with the passage of the years. Moreover, they said such a move would once again traumatise Eunice Lowe's daughter. The sentence was eventually commuted. But for 20 years nobody cared to ask about the impact of the opposing moves. On the one hand, Mr Hartfield's conviction has been overturned. On the other, his sentence had been commuted by the Governor. Meanwhile, Mr Hartfield was stuck in prison.

"It's one of those one-in-a-million deals," Mr Hartfield's defender, Kenneth Hawk, told the Associated Press. "When you see it, it's kind of breathtaking." Things finally began moving when Mr Hartfield petitioned local courts in 2006, having put the writ together himself with help of a fellow inmate. It was turned down twice by Texan judges before being approved by a federal judge, who said the inmate's position was as "straightforward and subtle as a freight train".

The US District Judge Lynn Hughes said the ruling overturning the conviction and paving the way for a re-trial was never quashed. "The court's mandate was never recalled, its decision never overturned, the conviction never reinstated," the judge ruled, rejecting the official claim that Mr Hartfield could have filed an appeal – but that he only had one year to do, beginning with the retrial order in 1983. The judge thought otherwise, saying the clock only begins when there is a conviction. Here, the conviction was overturned in 1980.

This week, a panel of federal judges finally came down on the side of Judge Hughes. The official position justifying Mr Hartfield's incarceration was "disturbingly unprofessional", they said. The Governor's decision to commute the sentence didn't make any difference, because there was no sentience to commute in 1983. The case has now been returned to the Texas Appeals Court, which has been asked to clarify the status of its initial ruling. The answer will determine if and when Mr Hartfield will finally get his day in court.

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