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A federal appeals court says convicted murderer Jerry Hartfield has been wrongly imprisoned for 30 years.
GATESVILLE, Texas--Jerry Hartfield was still a young man when an uncle visited him in prison to tell him that his murder conviction had been overturned and he would get a new trial.
Not long afterward, he was moved off of death row.
"A sergeant told me to pack my stuff and I wouldn't return. I've been waiting ever since for that new trial," Hartfield, now 56, said during a recent interview. He's serving life for the 1976 robbery and killing of a Bay City bus station worker. He says he's innocent.
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals overturned Hartfield's murder conviction in 1980 because it found a potential juror improperly was dismissed for expressing reservations about the death penalty. The state tried twice but failed to get the court to re-examine that ruling, and on March 15, 1983--11 days after the court's second rejection--then-Gov. Mark White commuted Hartfield's sentence to life in prison.
At that point, with Hartfield off death row and back in the general prison population, the case became dormant.
"Nothing got filed. They had me thinking my case was on appeal for 27 years," said Hartfield, who is described in court documents as an illiterate fifth-grade dropout with an IQ of 51, but who says he has since learned to read and has become a devout Christian.
A federal judge in Houston recently ruled that Hartfield's conviction and sentence ceased to exist when the appeals court overturned them--meaning there was no sentence for White to commute. But Hartfield isn't likely to go free or be retried soon because the state has challenged a 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals' decision favorable to Hartfield, arguing he missed a one-year window in which to appeal aspects of his case.
A 5th Circuit panel of the New Orleans court agreed with the district court in an October ruling, but last month it made a rare, formal request for the Texas appeals court asking it to confirm its decades-old decision to overturn Hartfield's conviction.