Opinions Released January 19, 2017

In this weekly blog, the Law Offices of Brandy Wingate Voss, PLLC will summarize recent decisions from the Thirteenth Court of Appeals and provide links to decisions on the court’s website.

Hartfield v. State, No. 13-15-00428-CR (Opinion by Justice Benavides; Panel Members: Justices Longoria and Rodriguez)

In this appeal from a conviction for murder, after more than thirty years of incarceration without a valid conviction, the Thirteenth Court of Appeals held that Jerry Hartfield’s right to a speedy trial had been violated.

The Thirteenth Court began by reviewing the long history of Hartfield’s case.

Jerry Hartfield was convicted of capital murder in 1977 and sentenced to death. In 1980, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals vacated the sentence due to an error in voir dire and ordered a new trial. The State filed a motion for rehearing, asking the court to either reform the judgment to reflect life imprisonment or allow a reasonable time for the State to seek commutation of the sentence from the Governor. The Court denied the State’s Motion, holding that the State already had sufficient time to seek commutation prior to the mandate.

The Court of Criminal Appeals’ mandate issued on March 4, 1983. Eleven days after the mandate issued, the governor commuted Hartfield’s sentence to life imprisonment.

Between 1983 and 2006, no action was taken. The State believed that the commuted sentence of life imprisonment was valid, and Hartfield remained in prison. In 2006, Hartfield petitioned for a writ of mandamus from the Court of Criminal Appeals, as well as filing a handwritten pro se writ of habeas corpus with the Wharton County District Clerk. The Court of Criminal Appeals summarily denied the petition in January 2007.

In April 2007, Hartfield again petitioned for a writ from the Court of Criminal Appeals, asserting his right to a speedy trial. The petition was again denied.

Hartfield then filed a pro se habeas corpus application in federal court. The District Court for the Southern District of Texas held that the commutation was void, but transferred the case to the Eastern District, which had jurisdiction over the area where Hartfield was imprisoned. The Eastern District dismissed the case for Hartfield’s failure to exhaust the state court remedies. Hartfield appealed to the Fifth Circuit, which certified a question to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals regarding the status of Hartfield’s conviction. The Court of Criminal Appeals held that the commutation had no effect because, at the time it was signed, there was no conviction or sentence to commute because the mandate had issued. The Court of Criminal Appeals also opined that it had denied Hartfield’s prior writs because they were filed under the wrong article of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure. Consequently, the Eastern District was correct that Hartfield had not exhausted his state court remedies. The Fifth Circuit affirmed the Eastern District Court’s dismissal of Hartfield’s federal case.

In 2013, Hartfield’s case was transferred to a different county. He again filed petitions for writs of habeas corpus based on his right to speedy trial, as well as a motion to dismiss the State’s indictment. The trial court conducted a hearing and made extensive findings of fact regarding the speedy trial issue, but ultimately denied Hartfield’s writ and motion to dismiss.

Hartfield was then retried for capital murder, reconvicted in August 2015, and sentenced to life imprisonment.

Hartfield appealed, claiming his indictment should have been set aside because his constitutional right to a speedy trial was violated.

Held: Hartfield’s right to a speedy trial was violated.

To determine whether a defendant’s constitutional right to speedy trial has been violated, the courts must conduct the four-factor Barker v. Wingo analysis, examining (1) the length of the delay; (2) the State’s reason for the delay; (3) the defendant’s assertion of his speedy trial rights; and (4) the prejudice to the defendant because of the delay. The analysis is only triggered however, after the defendant makes a showing that the length of delay caused “presumptive prejudice.”

The Thirteenth Court of Appeals noted that it would give total deference to the trial court’s findings of fact, but would review the legal aspects of the analysis de novo. Furthermore, the court noted that the Barker factors must be applied with common sense, so society is not harmed by the dismissal of charges based on a technical legal error.

(1) Length of the delay

The court first analyzed the length of the delay from the time Hartfield was arrested or accused until the time of trial. Delay of approximately one year is sufficient to trigger the speedy trial inquiry. Here, Hartfield’s case was not brought to trial for thirty years after his prior judgment was vacated by the Court of Criminal Appeals. The State conceded that this delay was presumptively prejudicial. Moreover, the significant duration of the delay—decades more than other speedy trial cases—caused the factor to weigh heavily against the state.

(2) State’s reason for the delay

The court next examined the State’s reason for the delay. The State admitted that it was negligent in failing to recognize Hartfield’s status after the Court of Criminal Appeals vacated Hartfield’s prior judgment. Moreover, the Thirteenth Court rejected any attempt by the State to shift blame to Hartfield. Although Hartfield’s attorneys did not act between 1977 and 2006, they did nothing to delay the case. The blame was solely on the State. The factor was thus weighed against the State, although not as heavily as if the State had caused the delay intentionally or in bad faith.

Yet, the Thirteenth Court emphasized that—particularly in light of the length of the delay—the State’s negligence fell “on the wrong side of the divide between acceptable and unacceptable reasons for delaying a criminal prosecution.” Moreover, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals’ decisions in 1983 and 2013 revealed that the State had the ability to seek commutation of Hartfield’s sentence if the State had acted in a timely fashion, before the mandate issued. The Thirteenth Court of Appeals thus characterized the State’s claim that it was ignorant of the invalid nature of the commutation order as “untenable,” and instead insisted that the State was aware of the necessary steps to commute Hartfield’s sentence and failed to act accordingly. Consequently, this factor weighed heavily against the State.

(3) Defendant’s assertion of speedy trial right

The court next turned to Hartfield’s assertion of his right to a speedy trial. Hartfield was silent in the case from 1983 through 2006 before filing a series of pro se applications for writs of habeas corpus and mandamus. The twenty-three years of inactivity were weighed against Hartfield. However, Hartfield continuously asserted his right beginning in 2006. Moreover, in light of the State’s lengthy and unreasonable delay, weighing this factor too heavily against Hartfield would condone prolonged prosecutions. Consequently, the Thirteenth Court weighed the factor only slightly against Hartfield.

(4) Prejudice to the defendant

Finally, the Thirteenth Court examined the prejudice to Hartfield; specifically, his oppressive pretrial incarceration, his anxiety and concern, and the impairment of Hartfield’s defense. The State did not dispute that Hartfield was in prison for thirty-two years without a conviction. Thus, Hartfield was clearly prejudiced by oppressive pretrial incarceration and the corresponding anxiety. Although Hartfield “acquiesce[d] to the delay” for decades, this acquiescence did not negate his long, unjustified incarceration. Thus, the factor weighed against the State.

Balancing these four factors, the Thirteenth Court of Appeals held that the Barker test weighed against the State, largely due to the extensive amount of time Hartfield spent in prison without a conviction. Hartfield’s right to a speedy trial was thus violated. The trial court’s denial of Hartfield’s motion to dismiss the indictment was thus reversed, and the Thirteenth Court rendered an order dismissing Hartfield’s case with prejudice.

Read the Full Opinion Here

Radcliff v. State, No. 13-16-00151-CR (Memorandum Opinion by Justice Longoria; Panel Members: Justices Rodriguez and Contreras)

In this direct appeal from a conviction for burglary and evading arrest, the Thirteenth Court of Appeals analyzed the sufficiency of the evidence to support a burglary conviction and discussed the high standard applied to claims for ineffective assistance of counsel.  

Radcliff was charged with evading arrest and burglary of a habitation for running after stealing a TV, pillows, and a blanket from Margaret Neu’s home on September 24, 2015. Against the advice of his counsel, Radcliff pleaded not guilty and requested a bench trial. The trial court heard testimony from Sharon Vanderpool, Officer Menchaca, Danny Deloy, Margaret Neu, and Thomas Fisher.

Sharon Vanderpool testified that she called the police to report that two suspicious individuals were rolling a recycling dumpster down the street in Corpus Christi. Officer Menchaca testified that he responded to the call and found a man—later discovered to be Radcliff—pushing a recycling bin containing a flat screen TV, two pillows, and an afghan blanket. Radcliff ran away as the officer approached, dropping latex gloves as he fled.

Corpus Christi employee Danny Deloy then testified that he identified the recycling bin as belonging to the Margaret Neu’s house.

Margaret Neu testified that she came home on September 24 to discover that someone had thrown a brick through her back door and taken her TV, two pillows, and her handmade afghan blanket. Neu’s husband, Thomas Fisher, testified that he identified the TV, afghan, and pillows recovered from the recycling bin as those missing from his home.

At the conclusion of the trial, Radcliff was convicted on both counts and sentenced to two years’ confinement for evading arrest and fifteen years for burglary, to run concurrently. 

Radcliff appealed, claiming that there was insufficient evidence to support his burglary conviction and that he had received ineffective assistance of counsel.

Held: There was sufficient evidence to support Radcliff’s burglary conviction and insufficient evidence to show ineffective assistance of counsel or prejudice resulting therefrom. The trial court’s judgment was affirmed.

Legal Sufficiency

Radcliff first claimed that the evidence was insufficient to support his burglary conviction because it did not place him inside Neu’s home. The Thirteenth Court of Appeals rejected this argument, noting that a defendant’s unexplained possession of stolen property gives rise to an inference that the defendant is the burglar. Moreover, flight from police gives rise to an inference of guilt. The trial court thus had sufficient evidence to support its finding that Radcliff entered Neu’s home.

Radcliff next claimed that the witnesses could not properly identify him. Two witnesses in particular—Officer Menchaca and Vanderpool—could not identify Radcliff when they initially saw him. However, a conviction is supported by a single eyewitness. Moreover, inconsistencies do not nullify a witness’s testimony. There was thus sufficient evidence to support the identification of Radcliff. The legal insufficiency challenge was overruled.

 Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

Radcliff next argued that he received ineffective assistance of counsel. The Thirteenth Court of Appeals noted that this challenge required evidence that the counsel’s performance was deficient, or, alternatively, if counsel had not been given an opportunity to explain his actions, the behavior must rise to the level of being outrageous and incompetent. Furthermore, the appellant must establish that there is a reasonable probability his case would have had a different result without his counsel’s errors.

Radcliff made only vague claims regarding his counsel’s management of the case, claiming that his attorney failed to investigate, did not prepare him to testify, did not present expert witness testimony, did not allow him to testify, and did not counsel him on waiving his right to a jury trial. However, the record did not provide sufficient detail to support these challenges, much less to prove that Radcliff’s counsel’s behavior was outrageous. Moreover, there was no evidence to show a “reasonable probability” that Radcliff’s case would have resulted differently without his counsel’s actions.

Having overruled both of Radcliff’s challenges, the Thirteenth Court affirmed the trial court’s judgment.

Read the Full Opinion Here