It has now been more than six years since Hartfield first began to try to unravel the series of errors and omissions which resulted in his wrongful imprisonment. And it could be years more before the courts finally grant him relief. It's hard to know which period is more infuriating: the 23 years during which Hartfield's rights were left unprotected by the justice system; the half-decade or so years since, when state officials, including judges, have refused to help him; or the years more of legal briefings and oral argument that the man will likely have to endure before he gets some relief.
This story begins in June 1977, when Hartfield was convicted of murdering Eunice Lowe, a bus station ticket agent, whose body was found by her daughter in a storeroom at the station. Prosecutors briefly played the race card and told the capital jury that Hartfield had confessed to the crime and that his fingerprints were on a bus ticket found at the station. Hartfield's trial attorney, Robert Scardino, says that he used an insanity defense, and Hartfield himself insisted (then and now) that the confession was falsely obtained. Following the conviction, Hartfield was swiftly sentenced to death. Today, he still says he is innocent.
Three years later, on September 17, 1980, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals unanimously reversed Hartfield's conviction, declaring that prosecutors had violated Hartfield's due process rights by "striking a juror for cause because of her reservations about the death penalty." Under Texas law, the remedy for such a violation, reasonably enough, was to grant the defendant a new trial. But that's not what prosecutors sought. Instead, they tried during that period to rescue the conviction by eliminating the death penalty component to the case. They tried, in other words, to find a way around the reversal.
They did not succeed, at least not on the books. From 1980 to 1983, the Texas courts refused to allow prosecutors to "reform Hartfield's sentence to life imprisonment." State law was clear, state judges told state prosecutors: A jury taint like the one in the Hartfield case entitled the defendant not just to a new sentencing hearing but to a completely new trial. These judges did not permit Texas officials to get around the 1980 reversal. But nor did they press prosecutors to give Hartfield the "speedy trial" he is entitled to under the Sixth Amendment. Hartfield, meanwhile, evidently also was in no big rush to be re-tried.
In 1983, the story turned. By March 4th, the Court of Criminal Appeals had had enough. It issued a mandate to Texas declaring that the conviction against Hartfield was "reversed and the cause remanded for further proceedings in accordance" with the 1980 ruling ordering a new trial. Ten days later, the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles recommended that then-Governor Mark White commute Hartfield's sentence from death to life in prison. On March 15th, the Governor commuted the sentence and sent a copy of his proclamation to the Texas court. And then nothing happened in the case -- nothing at all -- until 2006.