On Jan. 1 Stephen Harpold will be sworn in as the newly elected district attorney for the 198th Judicial District Court, serving Kerr and Bandera Counties. He says he has been the assistant DA since 2104.
He says, “My job is to seek justice for the people of Texas when someone breaks the law by committing a felony, a crime serious enough to be punishable by confinement in a Texas penitentiary.”
The process starts when he receives an offense report from a law enforcement officer. The DA’s office evaluates the report, and if it’s valid sends the case to a grand jury.
“We hold one grand jury per month,” Harpold says. “It doesn’t decide guilt or innocence, it looks at the case file, can call witnesses, and then decides whether there is probable cause an offence has been committed. If they don’t find cause, the members of the jury return ‘No Bill,’ and the case ends there. But if there is cause, they find a ‘True Bill,’ which is a paragraph detailing what the district attorney must prove to a petit jury, the jury that sits in a trial, to convict the accused. A warrant is issued for the arrest of the accused, and they are taken to jail.”
Harpold says at that point the accused is entitled to legal counsel. The accused then either posts a bail to be released from jail, or remains locked up. In the meantime, the district attorney sets a date for a trial.
“But we can only run about one trial a month, 12 a year,” he says. “So in about 90 percent of the cases either the accused will admit guilt and take a plea bargain, or we will decide that another option is available, and we’ll dismiss the case. I believe we do a good job of evaluating cases, and usually get a result that’s fair to the people of Kerr and Bandera we serve.”
He says once they get a conviction in a case, they take into consideration the circumstances of the case and the accused, and can impose either probation or imprisonment for varying amounts of time.
But the accused also has a right to appeal the case if they believe the result was unfair. The first level is the Fourth Court of Appeals, in San Antonio, which must hear any appeal. Next is the Texas Court of Appeals, but it can refuse to hear the case.
Harpold says many of his cases have to do with drug possession, but not all. “The case I remember the most came in Bandera. A young teenage girl, in foster care, told her schoolteacher that her brother couldn’t come to school that day because his foster father had beaten him. When the police went to check on the situation, the foster mother didn’t want the officer to see the child. The officer ordered her to either let him in, or bring the boy to him.
“When the officer lifted the boy’s shirt, he was severely bruised. Child Protective Services took custody of the two children, and a more thorough examination showed the boy was bruised all over. The foster parents were arrested. Once the girl felt safe, she revealed the foster father had been assaulting her for years.”
Harpold says, “I’ll never forget that young woman. She was the most brave, dignified survivor I ever met, even when she had to take the witness stand with her abuser looking at her. Now she’s in a safe and loving environment, and thriving.
“Winning cases like that, bringing justice for people like her, make this a wonderful calling. I’m lucky to be in this position.”
Harpold says he was born and raised in Houston. “I had a wonderful family, Lew and Dolores Harpold, and two older brothers. My father and both brothers are attorneys as well.”
But after he graduated from Stratford High School, in 1983, he says he didn’t really want to follow the rest of the family into law. He went to Texas A&M University, and earned a bachelor of arts in history in 1987.
“So there I was, and didn’t know what to do next. Dad said, ‘Why not just try law school.’ So I started at South Texas College of Law, in Houston. I got involved with the mock trial team, and started participating in moot court, and in the courtroom is where I found my calling.”
He says after graduating and passing the bar, in 1989, he went to clerk for a civil litigation firm. A law school buddy, Bill Stradley, alerted him to an opening at the Harris County DA’s office, and he worked there from 1991 to 1994.
Stradley also invited Harpold to a lunch group, where he met Jill Mooseberg.
“I asked her out on the spot, on Feb. 3, 1989, and took her to dinner at the Jade Dragon Chinese Restaurant. We got married Sept. 21, 1991.”
He says he and Jill are now “recent empty nesters.” Their son, Blake, graduated from Abilene Christian University, and works for USAA in San Antonio. Their older daughter, Christina, graduated from Vanderbilt University, and works at Teach For America. Their younger daughter, Susanna, is a sophomore at Vanderbilt.
Harpold says by 1994 he had “topped out” as far as promotions at the Houston DA’s office, and Jill was pregnant. Another friend, Barry Hastin, found him a position in Fort Worth, and he returned to civil law practice.
“I went from constantly trying cases to seeing a courtroom maybe once a year. At the time we were coming to Kerrville on camping trips, and meeting our good friend Pat Patillo, who has children the same age. He listened to me whine for a while, then offered to form a law firm, Patillo, Richards and Harpold, in Kerrville. We came down in 1999 for a visit, and moved in 2000.”
He says the three of them worked together from 2000 to 2014, when the current District Attorney Scott Monroe offered him the position of assistant DA. Now Monroe is retiring, and Harpold ran unopposed to fill his shoes.
“I started working as the assistant at the 198th District Court Nov. 1, 2014, and it’s all I ever wanted from the law. Jan. 1, I’ll become the district attorney. It’s good to have a position where you look forward to going to work every Monday.”