Austin

Day 2 of Criner trial focuses on scene where body was found, clues on campus

Haruka Weiser never had a chance to fight back, police say

AUSTIN (KXAN) — In the second day of the capital murder trial of Meechaiel Criner, jurors heard from law enforcement who investigated the scene where University of Texas at Austin student Haruka Weiser's body was found.

Criner is accused of killing UT student Haruka Weiser in April of 2016 by strangling her on the UT campus.

Jurors also heard from UT community members about a person who appeared to be squatting at a storage room at the UT Stadium. Prosecutors believe that person was Criner.  

First to take the witness stand was Austin Police Detective Ray Tynes, who examined evidence along Waller Creek where Weiser's body was found behind boulders near the UT Alumni Center.

Tynes said Weiser's body led him to conclude that she did not have the chance to fight back against her attacker, who he believes immediately put a nylon strap around her neck to strangle her.

However, Tynes was not sure whether Weiser was strangled first or if her skull fracture came first, or if her body was beaten shortly after she was strangled.

During questioning, Tynes also added that Weiser went across the creek to the spot where her body was ultimately found, though it was not clear to him if she was coerced that way or carried.

He said "without question" Weiser was eventually carried and placed in the position where she ultimately came to rest: nude, behind a large boulder, covered with debris and difficult to spot. 

APD crime scene specialist Amanda Aguilar photographed the scene and was responsible for flagging evidence. Prosecutors brought forward items which Aguilar recognized as evidence she processed from the creek: a black sock from Weiser's body, another apparently-matching black sock found balled up, a hammer missing one claw, a woman's bloodstained bra and a pair of glasses found near other evidence. 

Wednesday in court, Tynes said he was worried the hammer may have been a murder weapon, but couldn't find any blood on it. Prosecutors also pointed out that hammer was similar to the one photographed in the storage unit they believe Criner was squatting in. 

Both Tynes and Aguilar were questioned by attorneys about the pair of black rimmed glasses found in the creek bed near Weiser's body.

Prosecutors said in opening statements they believe those glasses belonged to Criner because he had a unique prescription. The APD investigators both explained they eventually collected the glasses as evidence, but didn't see them or flag them at first because they were tough to spot on the ground of the creek bed.

The investigators were also asked about a blue latex glove that was initially photographed but ultimately not taken into evidence because Tynes felt it did not appear to be related to the crime. 

Former APD Homicide Detective John Jones explained to KXAN that professional investigators are expected to photograph anything that may have a connection to the crime at first before ever touching the scene. 

"Everything could matter, you just don't know what's important and whats not important when you first get there," Jones said.

He added that if first responders or investigators are not properly trained, they can disturb or damage the evidence. Jones also said that it's expected that the defense will critically analyze the was in which the investigators sized up the scene and collected evidence. 

"You are holding up a person's life in your hands depending on what they're charged with, murder capital murder, you want to be sure you've got it right," he explained. 

Storage Unit at Belmont Hall

The jury heard from Jose Sandoval, a former UT student who belonged to the Texas Crew club back in the spring of 2016. 

Texas Crew used a room in the Belmont Hall at the UT Stadium, first over Valentine's Day weekend in 2016. When Sandoval returned to the room on March 30, 2016, he found the door open and spray painted blue. 

Immediately concerned that someone would think the crew club was responsible, Sandoval began taking photos. These photos, shown to the jury, seem to demonstrate that someone had been storing a large number of items inside the room, including a hammer which Sandoval said was missing a claw.

Also visible in the room were nylon straps and ropes, as well as a black and white motorcycle-style jacket. A shopping cart was found full of supplies. The prosecution previously said these nylon straps are similar to the one used to strangle Haruka. 

Sandoval told the courtroom he became especially concerned when he saw a tablet and a phone charging in the room, believing that someone had been squatting there and may have stolen the items. 

He immediately notified UT Rec sports, who granted his club access to the room, and by April 2 he said the whole room had been cleared out except for a box of light bulbs. 

Other UT staff members reported seeing a black, slender young man with a speech impediment inside. One athletics staff member who saw Criner in the storage unit pointed to Criner and said he believed Criner was the same man he saw in the storage room on March 30. 

Robert England, who worked in 2016 as a custodial contractor for the UT Athletics Department, was called as a witness as well.

England went to check on the storage room which his staff didn't typically use at the UT Stadium after getting an email with photos showing possessions there which did not belong to his cleaning staff. 

When England arrived to the room, he encountered a young black man with a thin build who was packing up his possessions to leave. England said the nylon ropes and straps hanging on the walls were not things his employees would have used in their cleaning duties.

Later on in the day, England went back to the storage room in an effort to talk with the man there. When he returned he found the room still cluttered but the man was gone.

So England hopped in a golf cart and eventually found the man he was looking for at the intersection of Red River and Dean Keaton. England said that man was pushing a shopping cart that was full of items and spoke with a slurred speech which sounded similar to being intoxicated. 

Prosecutors asked England if he remembered telling a UT police officer that the young man's name was Mick and that he was wearing glasses. England did not remember. 

The UTPD officer who took England's report was called in to testify, but was soon after dismissed after being told that talking about the report was hearsay. 

Surveillance video shows Criner following Weiser, prosecutors say

At the end of the day, jurors heard from people who compiled surveillance video near the UT Alumni Center from the night and at the time Weiser disappeared. The prosecution believes that an individual shown in this surveillance video is Criner. 

Two UT security employees testified they spent 650 collective hours reviewing video from these locations at surveillance cameras on campus. 

While KXAN was not in the courtroom when this first employee testified, we obtained video of his time on the witness stand.

The Daily Texan reports that David Beiger, a security technician at UT, went over surveillance video from the College of Liberal Arts loading dock near the UT Alumni Center starting at 9:20 p.m. on April 3, the last day Weiser was seen. Weiser was last heard from by her friends a little later than 9:30 p.m. on that day. 

In the video, a black young man with a bike, a gray backpack, an orange bandana and a black jacket walks near a light post, going back and forth around the area. 

Then at 9:38 p.m in the video, the individual is seen again in the frame, but a second figure wearing dark clothing walks toward, then over the bridge that cuts over Waller Creek. The individual with the bike watches this second person, then follows the person over the bridge. 

Prosecutors believe this video shows Criner watching Weiser walking on her path home from the Winship building, then following her. 

The Daily Texan reports that Beiger also walked the courtroom through surveillance video around 11:25 p.m. on April 3 which shows a person Beiger believes to be same man cross an intersection at San Jacinto Boulevard and East 23rd Street.

They also reported that Beiger said the person in the video, who originally had glasses in the earlier video, is no longer wearing them and has a blue bag with him that wasn't on his person before.

The Daily Texan also reported that Beiger told the courtroom he could not tell who the person in the video is. 

The second UT security employee who testified, David Krolczyk, told the defense that he spent the entire time searching for the one individual with a bike that authorities told him to search for. But upon more questioning from the prosecution, he added that while he wasn't looking for anyone else, he also didn't see anyone else in the surveillance footage he was looking through. 

The direction of testimony Thursday was also shaped by information the jury did not hear. In a brief statement, prosecutor Elizabeth Winkeler said there was evidence collected from Waller Creek and from Weiser's body to be tested for DNA. Winkeler said that it "was not found to have any evidentiary value."

In a pre-trial hearing, Judge David Wahlberg decided to throw out major DNA evidence in this trial because of procedural errors in analyzing it at the Department of Public Safety Lab. Instead, most of the evidence the court has heard for the case against Criner has been circumstantial, trying to tie Criner to Weiser's murder and to the scene. 


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