Hair testing, cause of death surface in Day 5 of Criner's murder trial

AUSTIN (KXAN) -- Day five of Meechaiel Criner's capital murder trial started with testimony from a forensic scientist who analyzed the hairs and fibers taken as evidence in the case.

Criner, 20, is accused of killing University of Texas student Haruka Weiser in the spring of 2016. 

Lindsay Bynum, a forensic scientist with the DPS lab, identified a head hair in the evidence and forwarded it to other labs for testing. The most recent testing she did for this case was on July 13, even as the trial was ongoing.

Bynum testified that a fiber found on the nylon strap Weiser was strangled with was visually similar to fibers from a backpack that was taken into evidence, though she couldn't offer an opinion on whether that fiber actually came from the backpack.

Two employees from Mitotyping Technologies in Pennsylvania testified, giving jurors a background lesson on the complicated biology that goes into mitochondrial DNA analysis of the hairs that were sent to them for analysis. 

Gloria Dimick with Mitoryping Technologies said that mitochondrial testing is "your last opportunity to get DNA information from a sample" in cases where there isn't enough information for a nuclear DNA profile or where evidence has been degraded by the environment. 

One of Dimick's colleagues testified via Skype that a piece of hair taken from a shirt found outside the building near campus where Criner was believed to be living had the same DNA profile as Weiser's.

Prior to the trial starting, 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. 

Thomas Weiser, Haruka's father, also returned to the witness stand. He shared photos of his daughter in glasses and testified that he only knew of one pair of glasses she wore: a pair with tortoise shell coloring and green on the edge.

Monday, glasses found near Haruka's body were a large focus of the testimony. The state has been trying to prove that those black-thick rimmed, prescription glasses belong to Criner, but the defense has been trying to prove the possibility that they belong to someone else. 

The deputy medical examiner with the Travis County Medical Examiner's Office, Kendall Crowns, was also called to testify. He explained that Weiser's cause of death was strangulation, but blunt force injuries to her head incapacitated her and prevented her from removing the nylon strap around her neck.

The courtroom was shown graphic photos of Weiser's body as the Medical Examiner's Office received it, observers in the courtroom teared up seeing the trauma to her body. She had extensive bruising all over, lacerations on her head, a skull fracture and the nylon tow strap wrapped tightly around her neck in a slipknot.  

Crowns testified that the blunt force injuries to Weiser's head could have come from rocks in the creekbed where she was found, but they could also have come from a weapon. He added that Weiser's body showed signs of falling on the ground and being hit forcefully. 

Crowns said he believes bruising to Weiser's sexual organs came from sexual assault. Additionally, Crowns believes Weiser was alive at the time she was assaulted. He said that if Weiser had survived the attack, the injuries from this assault would have left her in pain. 

Weiser's body showed no signs that she tried to pull off the strap she was being strangled with, Crowns said. That squares with previous testimony from APD homicide detective Ray Tynes who believes Weiser did not have a chance to fight back or escape her attacker. 

Tynes also testified during prior days of the trial that Weiser sustained a skull fracture, strangulation and bruising, but he could not tell for certain at what point Weiser was killed during the attack. Tynes said his theory about Weiser's head trauma was that her face was thrust into the rocks. 

Pornographic videos  

Throughout the trial so far, the attorneys have had differences of opinion over what evidence should be admitted. Those discussions came to a head Tuesday as the state wanted to admit the contents of a tablet found in the locker of the LifeWorks Shelter room that Criner was arrested from. The defense objected. 

After reviewing four violent pornographic videos on the tablet that the state wanted to bring in as evidence, the judge opted not to admit those videos. The state had wanted to use those videos to prove motive and intent, which the judge said was already clear.

As part of his explanation, Judge Wahlberg said, "the only really contested issue in the case as I see it at this point -- I think -- is identity." 

"Whoever killed Ms.Weiser intended to sexually assault her or kidnap her-- there isn't a question, it's not contested at all," Wahlberg went on to say. 

However, Wahlberg opted to admit one piece of evidence the prosecution was fighting to include: some writings from Criner contained on that tablet. Those writings had a note believed to be from Criner saying they shouldn't be viewed by anyone under the age of 18 and that he was seeking comment on his writing, the attorneys explained.

The defense objected on the grounds that the writings weren't subject to the search warrant, but the judge overruled after the defense brought up that it appeared Criner planned to publish the writings. 

Later the state called an investigator with the Travis County District Attorney's Office to the stand who explained the writings are in fact contained on a flash drive that was attached to the tablet, not the tablet itself. The defense attorneys were surprised by this piece of information. With that, the judge adjourned court early in the afternoon Tuesday so the attorneys could straighten out the details. 

Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore explained that the state planned to rest their case Tuesday but will likely rest on Wednesday instead because of this timing change. Judge Wahlberg has expressed multiple times he wants the attorneys to have this trial wrapped up by the end of the week. 

Jurors have been asked to return to the courtroom at 9:30 a.m on Wednesday.

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