A state district judge has filed a motion to hold Williamson County District Attorney Jana Duty in contempt of court for violating a gag order in a capital murder case.
Duty could face up to a $500 fine and six months in jail if found guilty of contempt.
According to the motion filed Thursday by Judge Rick Kennon, Duty violated an order not to talk to reporters about the Crispin Harmel case and also refused to show up for a required hearing following that violation.
Duty sent an email to Kennon on May 8, the day of the hearing, saying “she felt she was not given enough respect and therefore, she would not give respect to the Court by showing up for the hearing,” the motion said.
If Kennon finds in a hearing that it can be shown that Duty is in contempt, then the presiding judge of the 3rd Administrative Judicial Region will assign another judge to determine whether she is guilty. The date that Kennon plans to hold the hearing wasn’t included in his motion.
Austin lawyer Joe Turner, a former state and federal prosecutor, said Friday that it is “very rare” for a judge to find a district attorney guilty in a contempt case. He said it would also be unusual for someone to get the maximum jail time. “Honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever seen it where a person was found guilty and had to do six months in jail,” Turner said.
Kennon said in his motion filed Thursday that he had issued a gag order in the Harmel case April 9 at the request of the district attorney’s office. It said that Duty sent him an email May 6 saying she planned to talk to the American-Statesman about a story about a defense motion in the Harmel case.
Duty said in the email she wasn’t going to talk about the facts in the case but planned to “simply defend myself.”
Kennon said that on May 7 he saw a copy of an online article published by the Statesman that contained quotes from Duty regarding the Harmel case.
Harmel is accused of strangling Jessika Kalaher in 2009 in Cedar Park. Harmel’s first trial was declared a mistrial in May 2014.
Halfway through that trial, prosecutors said they discovered software that would put time stamps on a crucial surveillance video from a Wal-Mart. The time stamps were at odds with the defense’s timeline of events.
Before Harmel’s scheduled retrial could begin March 30, his attorneys filed court documents alleging that the district attorney’s office had withheld time stamp information from the video, which violated Harmel’s right to due process.
Harmel’s attorneys were given the correct video with the time stamps on it at the beginning of the trial, Duty said last week.
In 2001, the State Bar of Texas reprimanded Duty, then the Williamson County attorney, over her release of confidential information from an executive session of the Williamson County Commissioners Court. Duty had said the information she released was included in a lawsuit she filed to try to remove then-County Judge Dan A. Gattis from office. That suit was dismissed.
The State Bar found that Duty “committed professional misconduct,” according to a court document. The grievance was one of 24 complaints commissioners had filed against Duty with the State Bar in the spring, accusing her of violating rules governing professional conduct, confidentiality of information and truthfulness in statements to others.
The bar dismissed 23 of the 24 grievances. Duty had been publicly feuding with the commissioners over various issues relating to her office for more than a year.