TX Man’s Decades in Prison in ‘Criminal Justice Nightmare’

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After Jerry Hartfield’s first murder conviction was thrown out on appeal, for the next 32 years, he was not officially guilty of anything. Yet he remained in Texas prisons, in what an appellate court calls “a criminal justice nightmare,” the New York Times reportsHe was tried and convicted again in 2015, but yesterday a court ruled that he was denied his constitutional right to a speedy trial to a degree the court had neither seen nor imagined before. The three-judge panel dismissed the indictment against Hartfield, who is developmentally disabled, erasing the recent conviction. It still is not clear whether, or when, he will get out of prison. “We are deeply mindful that our conclusion today means that a defendant who may be guilty of murder may go free,” said Judge Gina Benavides wrote for the Court of Appeals. “However, based on the United States Constitution, it is the only possible remedy.”

Hartfield, now 60, has spent more than 40 years behind bars for the murder of a bus station ticket clerk. His case included a court ruling ignored or forgotten, an appeal dismissed by a court that said it had been filed under the wrong statute, a retrial after most of the evidence had been lost and witnesses had died, and an argument by prosecutors that Hartfield was to blame for the delays, and caused them intentionally. “Once you call this Kafkaesque, you can’t really call anything else Kafkaesque, because there’s nothing else remotely like this,” said David Dow of the University of Houston Law Center, who represented Hartfield on appeal. “This was the perfect storm of everything that could go wrong with the criminal justice system.”

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