How we got here: UT murder suspect’s trial

Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Jury selection starts Monday morning in the trial of Meechaiel Criner, the suspect charged with the capital murder of  University of Texas at Austin student two years ago.  Criner, 19, has pleaded not guilty. Because he was 17 years old at the time of the homicide, Criner is not eligible for the death penalty if convicted.

The extent of his punishment would be life with the possibility of parole if found guilty of the murder.

The case

Meechaiel Criner is accused of killing 18-year-old Haruka Weiser as she walked back to her dorm on April 3, 2016. Police found her body in Waller Creek two days later and arrested Criner on April 8.

Jury selection

The judge explained that jurors would weigh in on whether they think Criner is guilty of murder in the course of committing sexual assault, robbery or kidnapping. 

In selecting jurors, the attorneys are first focusing on how much of the publicity of the case these people have followed and whether it will influence them. 

“It’s not to get 12 ignorant jurors, its to get jurors who, despite what they may have heard or read, they can put that aside,” said former Travis County assistant district attorney Gary Cobb. He has no role in this case, but weighed in for KXAN because he worked as a prosecutor on dozens of capital murder cases in Travis County. Cobb believes that jury selection is the most important part of the trial because it shapes who will have a voice in the defendant’s fate. 

“In this day and age we sometimes refer to as a CSI effect where jurors have such a high expectation about what evidence will be presented in every case, that rarely is accurate,” he said. Cobb noted the reality for jurors is much less simple, often there is less concrete DNA evidence and more circumstantial evidence than they expect. 

Seventy-three potential jurors were seen in the courtroom Monday. Of those, roughly 20 raised their hands to say they had not heard of the case before and five raised their hands to say their opinion of the case had changed in the last month since they’d taken the questionnaire. 

This trial will have a jury of 12 people with two alternates. A second panel of 80 people will be brought in Tuesday and another jury panel of 80 people is on deck for Wednesday. 

When arguments could start

At a status hearing last week, the judge in the case said he hopes to have a jury seated by Wednesday of this week and opening statements might start that day or Thursday. Jurors can expect to work long days so the trial can wrap up before another on the court docket. The trial is expected to last a week and a half, but will be several days shorter than originally expected because of the Judge’s decision to throw out certain DNA evidence in the case.

Parties involved

Representing Meechaiel Criner are attorney’s Ariel Payan, Darla Davis, and Jeremy Slaughter. Representing the state are attorneys Guillermo Gonzalez, Rickey Jones, and VIctoria Winkeler.

Judge David Wahlberg is presiding over this case and emphasized to potential jurors Monday that this has been a “high publicity case.” He urged prospective jurors to not discuss the case with anyone and to not read or watch any coverage about this case.

DNA evidence disputed

Last month, the judge threw out several pieces of DNA evidence prosecutors wanted to introduce because of concerns that arose over the procedures DPS employees used while analyzing DNA evidence. The DPS lab which processed evidence from Weiser’s murder used STRmix testing, a new method for gathering the probability that someone’s DNA might be in a sample that includes a mixture of several strains of DNA.

The judge dismissed the DNA evidence in this case because the procedures for analyzing it were not followed at the DPS lab which began using the method in 2016. Defense attorneys explained the judge’s decision was not a ruling on the use of STRmix.  During pre-trial, Criner’s defense challenged the software DPS has been using, saying they believe it is not ready for the application it is being used for.  

“There was missing evidence and the judge was upset about that, and there were some procedural problems with what was done and that basically was what was the final straw for the judge,” Criner’s attorney Ariel Payan said after that hearing.

Prosecutors haven’t said what other evidence they plan to introduce, but the list appears to be extensive. Police say surveillance video shows Criner near the scene of the crime, and firefighters found him at a trash fire near the UT campus.

Police say he had a woman’s bike and duffel bag that looked like Weiser’s, and in the ashes detectives found one of her shoes, a burned college notebook, and what appeared to be her jacket.

Changes to UT Austin 

Weiser’s murder sparked a security review on campus, which recommended improved lighting and a larger campus police force, among other changes. Other security upgrades are still in progress.

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