AUSTIN (KXAN) — More than a month after a jury found Meechaiel Criner, 20, guilty of capital murder of UT student Haruka Weiser, his attorneys are filing for a new trial.
The Travis County District Attorney’s Office confirmed that the defense has filed a motion for a new trial. The DA’s office plans to contest the motion and added that several witnesses will likely be called at the hearing Wednesday. They noted that these motions are standard following a conviction, so the filing didn’t take them by surprise.
Criner’s case is set to appear in the 167th District Court in Travis County at 1:30 p.m. on Wednesday. Courtroom officials say that Criner will be brought to Wednesday’s hearing.
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 doesn’t believe the juror who signed the affidavit was pressured into the verdict, saying “that’s absolutely false and the truth will come out tomorrow at the hearing.”
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.
A state response to the defense’s motion for a new trial reveals more details about why Criner’s attorneys are pursuing a new trial.
The state quoted claims from the defense, saying that an influence from outside the jury room was brought into deliberations and the juror said in the affidavit she was “coerced” into voting guilty and “finally just gave up and changed [her] vote” because other jurors “told her she was being unreasonable and was crazy.”
According to the state’s response, the defense also claimed the jury foreman didn’t read certain instructions and or tell jurors about certain communication with the judge.
Prosecutors responded saying there isn’t enough evidence to support these claims outside of the affidavit. They added that the evidence still doesn’t prove under state law the juror was influenced by coercion and that even if outside information was brought into the jury room, not enough evidence is there to show whether it had any influence.
According to the state response, Criner’s attorneys also said they had discovered new evidence after the verdict which shows Criner is not guilty. They were referring to a data extraction from Criner’s laptop which a forensic analyst found “may be able to acquire additional data from the chip.”
In the court record, the defense was also quoted as saying that trial counsel was, “ineffective in failing to discover evidence that proves the [d]efendant was not guilty.”
The state disputes the credibility of the juror who filed the affidavit and is asking for the motion for the new trial to be denied.
It will be up to the judge to determine how credible these witnesses are.
Attorneys challenging a jury verdict with a claim of jury misconduct have a big task ahead of them, explained Jeffrey Abramson, a UT Law School and government professor who studies juries.
“It’s routine for the party to complain about jury misconduct, it’s extremely rare for a judge ever to grant a new trial based on these allegations,” Abramson said. “Almost never if the complaint is about bullying, I know of no case in which a judge has accepted an argument that a trial was unfair that some juror, after the fact, somehow has buyer’s remorse and somehow thinks they were bullied.”
While Criner’s case is high-profile — Abramson notes, “I think anyone in this community feels an emotional tug in this case, it’s such a vicious murder” — he also said the emotional significance it has for the community won’t likely play a role in whether a new trial is granted.
Abramson said the standard is so high for attorneys taking on this effort in order to protect what happens in the jury room.
“This is a perfect example of why we have these rules, we need closure, we need cases to be done, and we shouldn’t undo a jury verdict like this because someone now thinks there was jury misconduct, the bar should be really, really high,” Abramson said. “I think the judge will make it high in this case.”
Abramson explained that cases where jury misconduct is alleged are particularly challenging for judges because the judges can ask questions like whether bribery happened or whether a juror researched the case outside the courtroom, but the judge cannot ask the jurors about what was discussed or what led to their decision.
He noted that successfully proving outside information in the jury room could be grounds for a new trial, even more so now than years ago.
“We have a new game in which is the jury system stays the same and social media makes it possible for all jurors to be lawyers on their own,” Abramson said. “And you’re going to get increasing examples of jury misconduct.”
But Senior Judge Jon Wisser of the Travis County District Court noted that juries are not perfect. He explained that an allegation of jury misconduct will highlight how comfortable the judge was with the initial verdict.
“[As] a judge you don’t want to second guess a jury, but if you become convinced a jury got it wrong, you’re going to seek some way to grant that motion for new trial,” Wisser said.
He clarified that doesn’t happen often. In his 43 years of being a judge, he’s only presided over one case where a new trial was granted because of jury misconduct.
“Probably more people die from snakebite than people getting new trials based on jury misconduct, that’s how rare it is,” Wisser said.
He added that in Texas, the state legislature changed laws to make it more difficult to subpoena a jury and talk to them about the trial.
“Now it’s bordering on impossible,” he said.