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The life sentence given to a Texas man who has remained in prison for 33 years since being pulled off of death row isn't valid, Texas' highest criminal court said Wednesday, possibly paving the way for a new trial or the inmate's release.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals said once it overturned Jerry Hartfield's murder conviction in 1980 for the killing of a bus station worker four years earlier, there was no longer a death sentence for then-Gov. Mark White to commute.

The opinion was given in response to a rare formal request by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to confirm the validity of its ruling overturning Hartfield's conviction, in light of the governor's 1983 commutation. The New Orleans-based federal court made the request, which upheld a lower state court's ruling that the sentence was invalid.

"The status of the judgment of conviction is that (Hartfield) is under no conviction or sentence," Judge Lawrence Meyers wrote in a decision supported by the court's other eight judges. "Because there was no longer a death sentence to commute, the governor's order had no effect."

Hartfield, now 57, was convicted and sentenced to death for the 1976 robbery and killing of a Southeast Texas bus station employee. The criminal appeals court overturned his murder conviction, ruling that a potential juror improperly was dismissed after expressing reservations about the death penalty.

White commuted Hartfield's sentence in 1983 at the recommendation of the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, and he has remained in prison since then, unaware until a few years ago that his case was in legal limbo. Court documents in his case described him as an illiterate 5th-grade dropout with in IQ of 51, although Hartfield says he's learned to read and write while in prison.

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