Relatives of Jessika Kalaher calmly admonished Crispin Harmel after he was sentenced Tuesday night to life in prison for her strangulation death in Cedar Park in 2009.
“You have a chance to still breathe,” Kalaher’s father, Richard Kalaher, told Harmel. “You are lucky, because I wanted the death penalty because my daughter is not here and why should you be?”
Harmel, 38, automatically received a sentence of life without parole after being convicted of capital murder since prosecutors were not seeking the death penalty. It was his second trial in the case. The first ended in a mistrial in 2014 after prosecutors were accused of withholding evidence.
The jury deliberated for about five hours Tuesday before reaching the verdict shortly before 8:30 p.m.
“You have taken a life way more precious than yours could ever have been,” Jourdan Henley, Jessika Kalaher’s stepsister, told Harmel.
Kalaher, 27, was a graduate of Texas State University who was working two jobs to pay off student loans and wanted to be an elementary school teacher.
On Wednesday, defense lawyer Ryan Deck said the verdict surprised him.
“We believed that the state hadn’t proved its case because of the lack of physical evidence,” he said.
Deck declined to comment further about the verdict, but he said Harmel plans to appeal.
Prosecutors from the Texas attorney general’s office, who took over when the Williamson County district attorney’s office was recused from the case, declined to comment Wednesday.
The strongest evidence against Harmel was a surveillance video from a Walmart in Cedar Park that shows him following Kalaher out of the store about 1:46 a.m. Sept. 7, 2009, and then shows them leaving in her car.
Another Walmart video shows Kalaher’s car returning to the shopping center at 2:52 a.m. Harmel cannot be seen leaving the car, but the video shows a dark figure walking across a parking lot and shows the headlights of Harmel’s truck flashing on a few minutes later.
Prosecutors said during the trial that Harmel jumped into the back seat of Kalaher’s car after following her out of the Walmart, choked her with a seat belt and later raped and strangled her twice at a park before driving her back to the shopping center, believing her dead, and returning to his car.
“This defendant that night turned into every woman’s worst nightmare,” prosecutor Nancy Nemer told jurors during closing arguments Tuesday.
Kalaher was still alive when Harmel left her but had suffered severe brain damage from the strangulation and struggled for hours before dying of heatstroke in her car, prosecutors said.
Harmel, who did not testify during the trial, had told police he met Kalaher on a sex website and that they agreed to meet up at a Walmart and later had consensual sex at a park. But witnesses said during the trial that there was no evidence on Kalaher’s phone or computer that she had ever been on a sex website.
There was no DNA evidence in the case linking Harmel to Kalaher. Prosecution witnesses testified that DNA can degrade due to high temperatures, humidity and fecal matter. When Kalaher’s body was found inside her car it was 90 degrees outside and the car was smeared with feces, a prosecutor said. An expert witness testified that strangulation victims often lose control of their bowels.
After the sentencing was announced Tuesday night, Kalaher’s cousin John Ridenour also spoke to Harmel, saying he had noticed Harmel looking uncomfortable and upset during the trial. “You are a wolf and you will no longer prey on the sheep, and for that I am grateful,” he told Harmel.
Ridenour also said Harmel would spend the rest of his life in prison and then “spend the rest of your eternity in damnation.”