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Paris Teen with 100-Year Sentence Wins New Trial

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Aaron Hart has an IQ of 47. When Hart went to prison last year, his family described the then-18-year-old to reporters as profoundly mentally retarded. He couldn’t count money, didn’t know right from left, couldn’t shave and was illiterate. He played with toys made for 5 and 6 year olds.

Yet Hart was found competent to stand trial in Paris, Texas, on charges of indecency with a child. He pled guilty—though it’s not clear he understood the gravity of that decision—and received a sentence in February 2009 that shocked even the most tough-on-crime advocates.

He was sent to prison for 100 years.

But that sentence has now been overturned. In the latest development in the case, Texas’ 6th Court of Appeals threw out the conviction last Friday, ruling that Hart received inadequate representation from his court-appointed attorney. (Read the Paris News story here.)

The appeal contended that his attorney didn’t challenge Hart’s competency to stand trial, didn’t even consider his mental retardation as a defense, didn’t challenge the admissibility of Hart’s confession and didn’t investigate whether he understood the consequences of his guilty plea, according to The News.

Lamar County DA Gary Young told the newspaper he will put Hart on trial again.

Hart managed to graduate form high school in 2008—despite not being able to read or write. He was unemployable, though. So he took to mowing neighbors’ lawns and hanging out with young kids, who were more on his intellectual level. On Sept. 25, 2008, a neighbor allegedly discovered Hart in her yard fondling her 6-year-old stepson, according to news accounts.

His family contended that Hart had no comprehension of what he did. While awaiting trial, Hart spent seven months in county jail, where he was allegedly raped repeatedly by other inmates. 

The court-appointed attorney told Hart that, if he pled guilty, he might get probation—even though, due to the severity of the charges against him, Hart wasn’t eligible for probation. The appeals court cited this point in ruling that Hart received incompetent counsel.

Hart remains in prison awaiting a new trial.

His father told the Paris News that he hopes Hart will receive treatment in a state facility for the mentally disabled rather than decades in a maximum-security prison. It seems unlikely that Hart will receive another century-long sentence. But the larger question is should someone with his mental disabilities be in prison at all.

Dave Mann has been with the Observer since 2003. Before that, he worked as a reporter in Fort Worth and Washington, D.C. He was born and raised in Philadelphia. He thinks border collies are the world’s greatest dogs, and believes in the nourishing powers of pickup basketball.