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The Foundational Speedy Trial Case of Our Time Has Come

Some things get better with age. Murder cases don’t. The recent re-trying of a Texas murder case serves as a grim reminder that the "right to a speedy trial” for criminal defendants was enshrined into our Constitution for a reason.

Published: August 31, 2015

The Sixth Amendment to the Constitution guarantees the accused in a criminal trial “the right to a speedy and public trial,” but anyone who has paid any attention at all to America’s criminal justice systems knows that this is often a right deprived of a remedy. All over the country criminal defendants are deprived of their speedy trial rights, often for years, and then still are tried and convicted and sentenced, the results from those tainted trials then sanctioned by appellate judges who rely upon tortured constructions of law and fact to justify the result.

Sometimes the delay is the result of overburdened prosecutors who have no urgency to get a pretrial detainee his day in court. Sometime it is the result of lame judges who have allowed the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee to become unmoored from the realities of modern criminal litigation. Sometimes the fault lies with legislators who complain about delays but then refuse or fail to adequately fund criminal justice systems so they can operate effectively and efficiently. Sometimes it’s a combination of all three.

And sometimes a man’s speedy trial rights are violated not by some grand design but by some mystic combination of bad luck, poor communication, and bureaucratic negligence. Sometimes a case just falls through the cracks for years or even for decades. This is what happened to Jerry Hartfield. His 1977 murder conviction and death sentence in Texas were overturned in 1980 after a flawed capital trial, but no judge or prosecutor or defense attorney ever scheduled a new trial or sentencing hearing for him. Instead, the intellectually disabled man just sat there in prison, for 33 years, a third of a century, until someone figured out something was terribly wrong.

That was two years ago. Last month, Texas retried Jerry Hartfield in a proceeding the details of which ought to be used in law school classes around the country for what they say about the need for speedy trials. Unsurprisingly, given the state of the evidence, the second trial resulted in a conviction and a life sentence for Hartfield, a result that now will be appealed in Texas and then on into the federal courts. Hartfield may or may not be guilty — his long-ago confession was used against him again despite doubts about its reliability. But his second trial hardly cured the failings of the first.

For example, a Texas Ranger who testified in 1977 about allegedly incriminating statements Hartfield had made then is dead. But his testimony from the old trial was read into the record of the new trial anyway even though Hartfield’s defense attorneys obviously had no chance to cross-examine this prosecution witness. Likewise, a co-worker of Hartfield, who also testified in 1977 about comments Hartfield allegedly made, also now is dead. His testimony from the grave also helped convict Hartfield a second time.

A doctor who testified the first time around that Harfield didn’t look like he had been roughed up by the police prior to his “confession” declared this time around that he had no memory of the case. His testimony was used anyway. DNA from the vagina of the victim, scientific evidence that might have exonerated (or incriminated) Hartfield, is long gone. So, naturally, are the car and a pick Texas says Harfield used when he committed the long ago murder. His current attorneys had no opportunity to test the strength of that physical evidence against their client. Nor did jurors hear mitigating evidence from Hartfield’s family members who have died since his first trial.

Now, police and prosecutors cannot hold onto old evidence indefinitely just in case, 33 years later, there is a need to retry a capital defendant. Witnesses die or cannot be located and even the most accurate memories necessarily fade over time. There are, in other words, many good reasons why our justice systems need finality and certainty and why, therefore, the right to a speedy trial was important enough to be enshrined in the Bill of Rights.

But if all these things are true then what Texas has just done to Jerry Hartfield proves beyond doubt that his constitutional rights were violated by the passage of 38 years between his two trials. Rather than acknowledge that some cases simply fall apart and cannot be re-litigated, Texas decided instead to retry Hartfield based in part on the testimony of ghosts. In most respects, because of the absence of prosecution witnesses, his just-completed trial was even less fair than was his first trial, the results of which were overturned. Some things get better with age. Murder cases don’t.

It does not matter that Hartfield may or may not be guilty. The Sixth Amendment does not apply only to innocent defendants. This is the seminal speedy trial right case of our time and it forces our judges to directly confront the text and meaning of the Sixth Amendment. The right to a speedy trial means nothing if it doesn’t mean something to Jerry Hartfield.

The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.