About Me

My photo

Reading is difficult. As a writer, I help the reader every way I can think of. As a reader, I work hard not to miss the big things in the middle of the road.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Texas's Highest Criminal Court Holds that Man Has Been Waiting 30 Years for a New Trial

According to a recent decision of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, Hartfield v. Thaler, No. AP–76,926 (June 12, 2013) a man has been in prison awaiting a new trial for more than 30 years.
Here's how it happened: Hartfield is convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death in Matagorda County, Texas in June 1977. As all Texas death penalty cases do, his case automatically went up on appeal to Texas's highest criminal court-- the Court of Criminal Appeals. The CCA reversed and remanded for a new trial, because a prospective jury panelist was improperly kept off the jury. The State filed a motion for rehearing which was denied January 26, 1983. The CCA's mandate issued March 4, 1983.
A mandate is a final order of an appeals court in a case. If a case of a court of appeals is taken up by yet a higher court, the mandate in the case comes from the higher court and the court of appeals does not issue one. A mandate is practically always the last word in an appellate matter, though there is such a thing as a motion to recall a mandate. The State did not move to recall the mandate in Hartfield.
Now the governor always had the power to commute Hartfield's sentence from death to life in prison, and doing that was discussed as a way to avoid the retrial, but the governor did not commute (or, more accurately, try to commute) Hartfield's sentence until March 15, 1983. The prison system took this purported commutation and held him under a life sentence.
In 2006, Hartfield, without a lawyer, applied for a writ of habeas corpus with the CCA and was denied. In 2007, he applied for a writ of mandamus with the CCA to force the retrial, which was denied. He applied again for habeas with the CCA, which was held to be a subsequent application for habeas under Code of Criminal Procedure 11.07 section 4 and was, therefore, dismissed. Then, without a lawyer, as he had done all of this 21st century work, he filed for habeas with the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas. Normally, this would have been a fool's errand because of the one-year habeas deadline of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, but Southern District held that Hartfield was not being held pursuant to a judgment of a state court. Remember the CCA mandate killed the trial court's judgment and no new judgment had taken its place. Southern District held that his was really an application for a pretrial writ of habeas corpus. Somewhere around this time Hartfield picked up federal public defenders. Hartfield's case was moved to the federal Eastern District of Texas where it decided that Hartfield's claim was no good because he had not exhausted his Speedy Trial Clause claim in state court. At first the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit-- Texas's federal appeals court-- affirmed the Eastern District's judgment; I blogged about this before. but then changed its mind and sent a certified question to the CCA asking what the status of the judgment in Hartfield's case really was. That how we got to the CCA's decision two days ago.
Matagorda County's District Attorney Steven Reis is going to retry him. Steve is a law school classmate and hired me to be an assistant district attorney for him back in the day. He will be implacable and relentless, and has been superlatively good at his job for a very long time. The murder that Hartfield committed is remembered as a particularly heinous and horrible crime.
Hartfield and his lawyers have been persistent the last seven years. The background of this case teaches appellate criminal defenders that in our AEDPA world it may take as many as seven proceedings-- most of them losses-- to get a prisoner relief.
Hartfield v. Thaler, No. AP–76,926, (Tex. Crim. App., June 12, 2013)


  1. A fine radio piece on Steve Reis's Hartsfield decision: http://www.texasobserver.org/observer-radio-episode-55-prosecutors-dilemma/

  2. The article about Steve Reis related to the radio piece in the comment above. Recommended.http://www.texasobserver.org/to-kill-or-not-to-kill/

  3. Hartsfield's retrial courtesy of Bay City Tribune