AUSTIN (KXAN) — Meechaiel Criner, 20, walked back into the Travis County courtroom where he was found guilty by a jury panel of murdering University of Texas at Austin student Haruka Weiser. This time, he appeared in court as his attorneys asked the judge for a new trial, initially leaning on a statement from one juror who said she was “coerced” into a guilty plea.
However, the defense decided Wednesday to waive its allegations of jury misconduct entirely. They are now asking for a new trial on the grounds of new evidence.
Back in July, the jury of seven women and five men took around 10-and-a-half hours to find Criner guilty of murdering Weiser on the UT campus back in 2016.
Because Criner was 17 at the time the crime was committed, he is ineligible for the death penalty in Texas. Criner was sentenced to a life in prison with the possibility of parole after 40 years.
Judge David Wahlberg has until October 2 to decide whether to grant a new trial.
During Wednesday’s hearing, the defense called Matt Danner,a forensic examiner with Flashback Data, to talk about activity on Criner’s tablet. During the trial, lots of time was spent talking about the activity on Criner’s tablet on the night that Haruka Weiser was killed.
The contents of this tablet had been processed onto a flash drive that the District Attorney’s office used. Danner, who was called by the defense after the verdict, found a chunk of data missing on that flash drive and used the computer chip from the tablet to find more information. Using the chip, he was found a missing activity log that was not on the flash drive and used by the state in trial.
Additionally, he told the court that the program the state used to process the computer on the flash drive recorded information incorrectly and had a flaw in it.
Through Danner’s analysis on the activity log, he found that Criner’s tablet was open and powered on between 7:15 p.m. and 9:33 p.m. on April 3, 2016. He also found that the power button was hit at least four times between 8:45 and 8:46 p.m.
The suspect in the murder seen on UT surveillance video was first spotted on a bike at 8:42 p.m., then disappears, and is seen again on a bike going another direction at 8:48 p.m. The suspect appears to encounter Haruka Weiser on surveillance video at 9:38 p.m. that night.
Danner testified that while it is possible the power button on the tablet could have been pushed by jostling around in a backpack (as the defense suggested), he believes it is most likely the button was pushed by a human.
Danner also said the tablet connected to wireless address from LifeWorks on the evening of Weiser’s death.
Criner was taken to the LifeWorks shelter the day after Weiser’s death and was ultimately arrested there.The state pointed out that Criner testified that on the evening of Weiser’s murder he went to St. David’s Medical Center (not LifeWorks) to power up his devices and use WiFi before heading home to bed.
The judge was puzzled by the significance of the computer activity at first, saying, “that doesn’t — at least in my mind — come anywhere close to negating the rest of the evidence.”
But the defense argued that proving that Criner was on an open tablet pushing a button at the time when the suspect is seen on surveillance video shows Criner is not the suspect. The state objected, saying this was not new evidence and that the suspect goes back and forth out of the video, but the judge ultimately decided to take until October 2nd to think about it.
“Yes, it doesn’t directly go over the time period of the murder, but it goes over the time period where [Criner is] on video,” said defense attorney Ariel Payan.
“That evidence shows that Meechaiel Criner was not the suspect seen riding on the bike between 8:42 and 8:48 on April 3 2016, and if that is true he didn’t kill her,” Payan said.
He added that the trial itself was based on circumstantial evidence and that many of the jurors had questions around that circumstantial evidence.
“This is direct evidence, this is direct evidence that computer was touched, it was manipulated, it was never closed,” he said.
However prosecutors don’t believe the activity on the tablet qualifies as new evidence, which is what it would take to prompt a new trial in Texas. They believe the suspect’s appearance in the surveillance video doesn’t totally line up with the arguments the defense had made.
“We look forward to this issue being over, and if the defense wants to file an appeal — which I’m sure they do in all cases — then they can go on to that next issue, but we’re just ready to move on from this issue onto other things,” said prosecutor Guillermo Gonzalez.
Gonzalez said the jury misconduct allegations of bullying and introducing outside information were dropped because, “we talked to all the other jurors and there was no validity to the allegations.”
However Payan believes this juror was in fact bullied but that hey didn’t have enough time or evidence to prompt a new trial based on that allegation. He added that the juror contacted the defense team on her own accord after the trial.
The DA’s office explained that these motions are standard following a conviction, but as jury experts explained to KXAN, in Texas courtrooms very rarely to judges grant a new trial based on allegations of jury misconduct.
One juror who asked to remain anonymous told KXAN they were notified by state attorneys a couple weeks ago that a motion for a new trial would be filed.
That juror said they were told there were allegations of jury misconduct during deliberation and that one of the jurors signed an affidavit alleging she was bullied into her guilty plea.
The juror who spoke with KXAN said those allegations are “absolutely false.”