The Right to a Speedy Trial: Incarcerated Thirty-Five Years With No Sentence

By: Shawnta Albro

The Sixth Amendment right to a speedy and public trial is fundamental to the criminal justice system. This right is in the interest of preventing oppressive pretrial incarceration and limiting the possibility that the defense will be impaired.[1] These interests are weighted to assess whether the defendant was prejudiced by the delay.[2]  In theory, the right to a speedy trial ensures that the accused will not be imprisoned for too long of a period without being tried for a crime.[3] Undue delay can have major implications for the accused.[4] It can prevent him from contesting the charges against him to the best of his ability; witnesses may become unavailable, memories may fade, and in the meantime the accused remains in custody.

In Barker v. Wingo, the Supreme Court held that to determine whether a defendant has been denied his constitutional right to a speedy trial, four factors must be considered.[5] The court must assess the length of the delay, the reason for the delay, whether the defendant asserted his right to a speedy trial, and whether the defendant was prejudiced by the delay. [6]

The burden on the defendant and the government is a sliding one.[7] The state must justify the length and reason for the delay; however, the defendant has the burden of asserting the right and demonstrating prejudice.[8] The Court in Barker emphasized that the factors must be assessed together with other relevant circumstances, and that none of the factors are absolutely necessary to find a deprivation of the right to a speedy trial.[9] The Court has held that the only possible remedy when the accused has been denied a speedy trial is the dismissal of the charges.[10]

In 1977, a jury in Matagorda County, Texas convicted Jerry Hartfield of the capital murder and sentenced him to death.[11] Three years later, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals reversed his conviction and ordered a new trial.[12] The court found that the state violated Hartfield’s rights under the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments by striking a juror for cause based on her reservations regarding the death penalty.[13] Less than two weeks after the court of appeals issued its mandate, the Governor of Texas commuted Hartfield’s sentence to life in prison.[14] The Texas Department of Criminal Justice continued to maintain custody of Hartfield.[15] However, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals later found that the governor’s commutation order had no effect because there was no death sentence to commute.[16]

In 2006 and 2007, nearly forty years after being held for his overturned conviction, Hartfield asserted two claims for his right to a speedy trial through post-conviction habeas petitions.[17] The state courts denied relief for both claims. Thus, Hartfield filed a federal habeas claim.[18] After the federal district court dismissed Hartfield’s speedy trial claim, the Fifth Circuit affirmed the decision and certified a question to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals: “[w]hat was the status of the judgment of conviction after these events (the issuance of the mandate and the commutation of the sentence) occurred?”[19]

In 2013, Hartfield attempted once more to enforce his constitutional right to a speedy trial in state court.[20] Almost a year later, the trial court found that Hartfield’s claim weighted against him after assessing the four factors established in Barker.[21] In 2014, Hartfield appealed again to the Criminal Court of Appeals of Texas.[22] The court found that a pretrial habeas writ was not the appropriate remedy and denied relief.[23]

Hartfield was eventually retried in August of 2015.[24]  A jury once again found him guilty, and sentenced him to life in prison. This retrial was filled with issues related to the evidence after the vast amount of time that had passed. Furthermore, during his 2015 trial it was reported that Hartfield had an IQ of ranging from fifty-one to sixty-seven.[25] Each of his IQ test results are  below the minimum IQ standard for executing a person in the United States. Hartfield also did not realize that he was imprisoned without a sentence until 2006, when a fellow prisoner pointed out that his conviction was actually overturned.[26] His attorneys are in the process of appealing his current conviction. Hartfield spent over thirty-five years in prison without a sentence. If this case does not violate the Sixth Amendment right to a speedy trial, it is difficult to imagine what type of delay will violate it.


[1] See Barker v. Wingo, 407 U.S. 514, 532 (1972).

[2] See id.

[3] See Alan L. Schneider, The Right to a Speedy Trial, 20 Stan. L. Rev. 476, 476 (1968).

[4] See id.

[5] See Barker, 407 U.S. at 532.

[6] See id. at 530-31.

[7] Simon Azar-Farr, A Defendant’s Right to a Speedy Trial – Texas Law, San Antonio Lawyer 14, 14 (2010).

[8] See id.

[9] Barker, 407 U.S. at 533.

[10] Id. at 522.

[11] Ex parte Hartfield, 442 S.W.3d 805, 807 (Tex. App. 2014).

[12] Id. (citing Hartfield v. State, 645 S.W.2d 436, 441 (Tex. Crim. App. 1980) [hereinafter Hartfield I]).

[13] Ex parte Hartfield, 442 S.W.3d at 807.

[14] See id.

[15] Id.

[16] Hartfield v. Thaler, 403 S.W.3d 234, 239 (Tex. Crim. App. 2013).

[17] Tex. Code Crim. Proc. art. §11.07 (2015).

[18] Ex parte Hartfield, 442 S.W.3d at 807 (citing Hartfield v. Thaler, 498 Fed. Appx 440, 444 (5th Cir. 2012) (per curiam) [hereinafter Hartfield II]).

[19] Id. (citing Hartfield II, 498 Fed. Appx. At 445).

[20] Ex parte Hartfield, 442 S.W.3d at 807.

[21] See id. at 808.

[22] See generally id. at 807-808.

[23] See id. at 815.

[24] See Matt Ford, The Retrial of a Texas man Imprisoned Despite an Overturned Conviction, The Atlantic, Aug. 20, 2015, http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2015/08/the-retrial-of-a-texas-man-imprisoned-despite-his-overturned-conviction/401876/

[25] See id.

[26] Id.