Friday, January 4, 2013

Know what a Constitutional speedy trial violation looks like?

The right to a speedy trial is one of the fuzzier Constitutional rights. There is no set time limit, no magic formula for establishing when the right has been violated. Instead, there are factors to be weighed against one another. The lead case on the speedy trial right is Barker v. Wingo, from 1972. The four factors for a court to consider are:

1) the length of the delay
2) the reason for the delay
3) the time and manner in which the defendant has asserted the right
4) the degree of prejudice the delay has caused to the defendant.

The Supreme Court has never ruled that a specific length of time equals an automatic violation. Instead, it's a case-by-case analysis. You might even find a judge or two who would rely on that old fall-back line of I can't say what a speedy trial violation is, but I'd know it when I saw it.

Well, I'd like to think there aren't many judges who wouldn't look at the sad, strange case of Jerry Hartfield without saying, "Yep, that's it."

Jerry Hartfield has been in prison for over 30 years. But as of 1980, his murder conviction was overturned. He hasn't been retried since. In 1983, the governor commuted his death sentence and everyone apparently forgot about the case. Apparently, it didn't faze anyone that not only was there no death sentence for the governor to commute, there was no conviction for which Hartfield could be sentenced. Poor Mr. Hartfield was left to languish in general population in a Texas prison, thinking his appeal was still on-going. As it turns out, though, he didn't have any attorneys representing him for all those decades. The trial attorney who represented Hartfield in the early '80s claims that his obligation to the client ended when the governor commuted the sentence.

You might think that now that this has gross oversight has been noticed, Mr. Hartfield would be released forthwith. But you'd be wrong. Because though a federal district court judge ruled in Mr. Hartfield's favor (DUH!), the state has appealed it. Why? Because, they say, Mr. Hartfield missed a one-year window for appealing aspects of his case. Oh, if I were a dog, I'd totally do that head cock, confused questioning look thing right now. I presume the prosecution is referring to the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA), every defense attorney's favoritest piece of legislation. So Mr. Hartfield remains incarcerated, held in prison as a murderer even though there is no conviction and hasn't been one for over 30 years.

I hardly even know where to begin in my rants. Do I start with the prosecution who utterly failed to prosecute its case and is now attempting to cover-up its incompetence and the resulting massive injustice by wild misapplication of law? Or do I start with the trial defense attorney who was so pathetically incompetent, he thought his obligation to his client ended when a non-existent death sentence (for a non-existent conviction) was commuted to life in prison?

I guess I'll start with the guys who aren't on the same side I am because, while I hate prosecutorial shenanigans, I'm never as disappointed by them because, sadly, I know to expect them. So let's start with this disgusting argument that Jerry Hartfield should remain incarcerated for a crime even though there's no conviction because he missed a filing deadline. AEDPA was never, never meant to bar a person who is being held in prison without a conviction. AEDPA is aimed at limiting the relief available to defendants in federal court after their convictions have been upheld on direct appeal. But that is not this case. And, honestly, prosecutors, come on. I mean COME ON! There is no conviction. Get that? No conviction means there is nothing for which he can be sentenced. There can be no sentence without a conviction. So you have no basis for attempting to hold this man. And what on earth is he supposed to appeal, if there is no conviction and no sentence? He should remain in prison for life, even without a conviction, because he didn't appeal what, exactly? The prosecution dropped the ball on this. Big time. They have the sole responsibility for prosecuting their cases and they flat-out failed to prosecute Mr. Hartfield. They should be ashamed of themselves for trying to blame this travesty on anyone but themselves.

And, you, Mr. Defense Attorney. Mr. "I had no obligation to see that my client was released or retried after his conviction was overturned." Where on earth did you go to law school? And how do you still have a license to practice law if your sense of your obligations to your clients is so entirely lacking? You obviously stayed on the case after the appellate decision overturning your client's conviction came down. After that, the state tried twice to get the appellate court to reverse that decision. That happened before the bogus commutation, so you must have been involved or at least aware that the appellate decision stood. So how on earth do you come to the conclusion that you had no obligation to get your client out of prison or to a second trial? It boggles the mind that people like this are allowed to represent people in court. If you still have an active law license, you need to lose it for this. You deserve to be cast out of professional associations. You deserve to be on the wrong end of a giant civil suit by Mr. Hartfield. You deserve never to have a peaceful night of sleep again for the rest of your years.

Had I, or any decent defense attorney, been on Mr. Hartfield's case in 1980, you can bet this case would have been resolved decades ago. Literally decades ago. A real and diligent defense attorney would not be satisfied that his client got his non-existent death sentence commuted. Heck, a half-awake, coked-out defense attorney ought to be able to recognize the giant, enormous, huge jurisdictional flaws in sentencing a man to life in prison when there was no conviction.

The District Attorney says because of the appeal, it's "premature" to discuss the possibility of a retrial. And then there's this gem from the trial attorney:

Scardino [defense attorney] said that if Hartfield's confession, which he believes authorities illegally obtained, is allowed at a retrial, Hartfield risks being sent back to death row.
"You have to think: Why would you undo something like that now when you might be looking at something like the death penalty?" he said.
And Sarah's head explodes.

Ok, one last time for the cheap seats in the back: There is no conviction, no valid state's appeal, and nothing to undo. The state's appeal bent on keeping this guy in prison absent a conviction is cow manure. The stinkiest, nastiest pile of cow manure I've ever seen. The attorneys fighting to keep a man serving a life sentence without a conviction should be ashamed of themselves. And they should probably be disbarred. (No, I'm not kidding. This is despicable.) And defense attorney, there is nothing to undo. Hello! There's NO CONVICTION! You do not get to hold a man in prison for failing to file an appeal of nothing. And you do not get to consider whether or not to undo something that doesn't exist.

What needs to happen, and happen fast, is this. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals needs to reject the state's appeal. They need to order the immediate release of Mr. Hartfield for violation of his Constitutional right to a speedy trial. Sure, they could skip that part and instead refer the case back to the Texas District Court with an order to retry or release Mr. Hartfield. Then it could be up to the state trial court judge to hold a nonsense hearing at which that judge could then consider the 4 Barker v. Wingo factors, where a judge could then consider whether a 30 year delay based on the utter incompetence of all parties is really a violation of the 6th Amendment. Can't you just see a Texas judge saying, "Well, he waited 30 years to assert his right not to be in prison without a conviction, so no violation?" But for crying out loud, no trial court should be given the opportunity to make the wrong call on that, allow a trial to go forward and make Mr. Hartfield go through rounds of appeal before we ultimately get to the conclusion that ought to be blatantly obvious to a kindergartner.

Because this case? This case is the absolute poster child for Constitutional speedy trial violation. My god, how can anyone not see that?

Let Jerry Hartfield go.

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