BAY CITY — Jerry Hartfield has spent 35 years of his life behind bars for a crime he says he did not commit.
Hartfield was arrested in Wichita, Kansas, in 1976, just days after a September attack at a Bay City bus station that left ticket clerk Eunice Lowe, 55, dead.
Lowe, of Bay City, was beaten with a pickaxe, stabbed with a broken glass bottle, robbed and raped. Her car and nearly $3,000 in cash were taken.
Hartfield had been working a construction job in Bay City at the time of the murder.
Described as illiterate with an IQ estimated in court records at 51 to 67, Hartfield claims he is innocent and was coerced into a false confession all those years ago.
Many professionals believe an IQ of 70 to be the threshold for mental competency.
Hartfield was convicted and sentenced to death in June 1977; he was 21.
On Wednesday, Aug. 19, the defendant, Jerry Hartfield, was brought in to the 130th District Courtroom of the Matagorda County Courthouse wearing slacks and a blazer and not in handcuffs. Closing arguments in a retrial of the 1976 murder was about to begin.
In 1980, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals overturned Hartfield's conviction because a juror in the trial had been incorrectly dismissed for expressing opposition to capital punishment. Three years later, then-Texas Governor Mark White commuted Hartfield's sentence from death to life in prison.
Jerry Hartfield, at 59 years old, began the process of a retrial. On Tuesday the defense and the prosecution rest their cases, and closing arguments began at 9 a.m. Wednesday morning. The case has proven to be abnormally complicated, as the murder weapon has disappeared, Lowe's car has since been destroyed and several key witnesses have passed away.
The defense argues that when the conviction overturned in 1980, there was technically no sentence to commute. Hartfield should have immediately been granted a retrial. With no legal counsel after the original trial, Hartfield has spent the past 35 years behind bars without a conviction.
It was not until a fellow inmate explained to him in 2006 that he should have gotten a new trial that the ball began rolling again. This conversation led to a discussion that resulted in a court-appointed attorney for Hartfield and the beginnings of a new trial that would find its way in to the court of District Judge Craig Estlinbaum in Bay City.
District Judge Estlinbaum called in the jurors and read the charge of Case No. 14-285, State of Texas v. Jerry Hartfield, to the jury, counselors, and a room full of law enforcement officers such as Sheriff Skipper Osborne and other members of the Matagorda County Sheriff's Office. The charge of capital murder, to which Hartfield has pled not guilty, was presented to the jurors alongside a lesser charger of murder for consideration.
Judge Estlinbaum reiterated that the jury must find beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the crime and had intended to do commit the said crime in order to convict him.
Counsel for the State, Lisa Tanner, an assistant attorney general who is assisting the prosecution, opened the prosecution's closing argument by describing the victim, Eunice Lowe, and her standing in the community.
"She went to work. That's what Eunice Lowe did to contribute to her death," she said. “The evidence shows that it was intentional.”
Using prior testimony from the 1977 trial, the prosecution reminded the jury that Hartfield had told his co-workers that he was desperate to get back to Wichita, KS and that he needed money and/or a car to get there. Tanner presented this evidence to the jury as a motive for the attack, on or about Sept. 17, 1976.
Tanner described murder in the course of a robbery as capital murder to the jury, and offered them guidance as to the charges before Hartfield.
“Just because the lesser charge of murder is an option, that doesn’t mean you should consider it,” she said.
In her recap of all of the evidence, she said that the defendant’s confession alone was enough to convict Hartfield. It was then up to the jury to decide whether or not Hartfield had given that confessional voluntarily, or had been coerced by law enforcement at the time to provide that statement.
Toward the end of her argument the atmosphere turned contentious in the courtroom as she began to describe the events of that evening in September 1976. She described the manner in which Ms. Lowe was killed, and how the defendant had allegedly partaken in sexual misconduct with the body of the victim after her death before taking nearly $3,000 in cash and the victim’s car.
During this graphic description the defense four objections were given to the manner in which the prosecution was giving description, two of which were sustained by Judge Estlinbaum and the other two overruled.
After the prosecution closed, defense attorney Thomas “Jay” Wooten opened by saying that it had been 14,215 days since the date when Ms. Lowe was killed. He went on to say that like many things from 1976, the evidence in the case was not reliable.
“Like things you have in your home from 1976, this case has parts missing and is based on defunct technology,” he said.
He said the murder weapon was missing, the car no longer existed, many of the key witnesses from the 1977 trial were deceased, the DNA evidence was not conclusive, there were several clerical errors including fingerprint mix-ups and many of the testimonies were based off of decades-old memories.
“Is it really fair to rely on the testimony of deceased witnesses through transcripts when we can not cross-examine them?” he asked the jury before reminding them that Hartfield has a Constitutional right to a fair trial.
Wooten went on to explain that Hartfield’s low IQ kept him from understanding the situations and warnings during and after his arrest in 1976. He referenced prior testimony of a psychologist who said that Hartfield has trouble understanding the Miranda rights today, and by extrapolation he could not have understood them in 1976.
Using this same testimony, Wooten told the jurors that the statement of confession could not have been accurate as it is a written statement, transcribed by law enforcement and signed by Jerry Hartfield. He argued that Hartfield is illiterate, and that police created the confession and coerced Hartfield to sign it knowing that he could not read it or understand what he was signing.
“Some of the words in that statement are too advanced for Jerry Hartfield to understand, even today,” said Wooten.
In the defense’s search for an acquittal, he asked the jury to throw out that statement and then all the evidence would show is that at some point in time Hartfield was at the bus station in Bay City drinking a Dr. Pepper, and that was not beyond a reasonable doubt to convict someone of a murder.
He went on to say that if the jury chose to believe that statement, then they had to believe it all.
“You can not pick and choose what parts of the statement you want to believe,” he said.
Wooten suggested that the evidence says that there was a murder, a desecration of the body and then a robbery. Therefore, the murder did not occur in the course of or the immediate flight of the robbery. Wooten suggested that the robbery was an after thought, therefore the act was not capital murder.
Wooten closed by telling the jury that it was not their job to find closure, and that they need to fight against being led by emotion.
“It is your job to decide what, if anything, the State has proven to you beyond a reasonable doubt,” he said.
In the prosecution’s rebuttal, District Attorney Steven Reis challenged the defense’s argument that Hartfield could not understand the statement of confession.
“In 99 words, only four sentences, he described exactly what the crime scene shows.” The longest word is two syllables long. Tell me he can not understand that,” said Reis.
“He was there to get money, and to get a car if he could. Ms. Lowe objected, and for that she died. That’s what makes this a capital murder,” he said.
Deliberation and verdict
At 10:45 a.m. the jurors were retired to the jury room to deliberate.
After nearly five and one-half hours the jury returned a verdict to Judge Estlinbaum at approximately 4:05 p.m. At 4:12 p.m. Judge Estlinbaum announced that the jury had reached a verdict and read it aloud before the court.
“We the jury find the defendant guilty of the lesser offense of murder,” he read.
Hartfield showed no visible reaction, sitting still and staring forward intently with his head tilted to the right. The defense attorneys, however, shared a brief moment of celebration and fist-bumped as the court was dismissed to recess until the punishment phase of the trial, beginning at 9 a.m. Thursday morning.
The conviction of murder carries a possible punishment of five-99 years to life in prison. Based on the law in 1977 when Hartfield was previously convicted he could be immediately eligible for parole because of time previously served.
At 9 a.m. Thursday morning the court reconvened to begin the sentencing phase of the trial. Jerry Hartfield was sentenced to life in prison, and a $100 fine. Hartfield does remain eligible for parole opportunities in the future.