Father of slain UT student takes the stand on the first day of trial

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Opening statements began Wednesday in the trial of a man accused of murdering a University of Texas at Austin student two years ago.

Meechaiel Criner, 19, has pleaded not guilty to the capital murder charge. He is accused of killing Haruka Weiser by strangulation as she walked back to her dorm April 3, 2016. Police found the 18-year-old's body two days later in Waller Creek.

Because of the high-profile nature of this case, the 12 jurors and two alternates have been told multiple times not to discuss the case with anyone or to follow news coverage about it. Specifically, the jurors will have to weigh in on whether they believe Criner is guilty of intentionally killing Weiser by strangulation in the process of committing robbery, aggravated sexual assault, or kidnapping. 

In this case Criner is not eligible for the death penalty because he was 17 at the time of Weiser's murder. 

Prosecutor Guillermo Gonzalez told the jury in his opening statements about surveillance videos, evidence on campus, evidence at the Medical Arts building and details about Criner himself which lead the state to believe that Criner is guilty. 

Defense attorney Darla Davis told the jury that Weiser was murdered in a horrific manner, but the defense intends to prove that Criner was not there when the murder was committed and that Criner is not guilty. 

Criner's history

The defense explained that Criner is from Texarkana but had spent his life in foster homes. Most recently, the defense said that Criner had been in Killeen where he was housed in a youth shelter, then placed in a foster home. In late March of 2016, the defense said Criner ran away from that home and ended up in Austin where he was homeless and living on the street.  

Prosecutors went over several details about Criner, which those who've been following the case are familiar with. The state believes Criner was the person captured on campus surveillance video around the time Weiser disappeared and that he was carrying Weiser's blue and red duffel bag.

The state also recounted how Criner was found after Weiser's murder at a fire in an empty building at Medical Arts Park on the UT campus where several items that appear to belong to Weiser were found smoldering. 

During opening statements, the state revealed information surprising to many observers in the room: days before the murder happened, a young man was found living and storing supplies in a storage room at the UT stadium. 

That man was described as a young black man with a lisp or an accent. The state believes that man was Criner. There were photos taken of the storage room, but not of the young man who had been staying inside and kicked out by a UT employee. 

There were belongings inside that room including nylon tow straps on the walls that prosecutors said looked similar to the strap used to strangle Weiser. 

Haruka's Dad Takes the Stand

The first witness to be called forward was Thomas Weiser, Haruka's father. Thomas described his daughter as a talented dancer, a great student and a responsible young woman.

He said she attended UT on a dance scholarship even though it was far from her family in Portland, Oregon. Haruka was in the dance program at UT, but in her second term she also took on Pre-Med requirements because she decided she wanted to be a doctor.

Thomas recalled visiting Haruka when she started at UT and observed the shortcut she regularly traveled walking from the dance building to her dorm. He recalled telling his daughter he thought that path would be unsafe at night.

Thomas said he heard his daughter might be missing from a neighbor, then on April 5 saw a Facebook message he'd missed on April 4 from Haruka's roommate alerting him. He was confused about why UT didn't have his or his wife's contact information and became very worried when he realized Haruka had been missing for two days.

"My heart kind of sank because that was unusual for her," Thomas said. He had last seen his daughter during March of 2016 when they went on a family vacation to Mexico together. 

He expressed frustration about calling the UT Police Department for details in the first days that Haruka went missing and said that he did not initially receive a response. 

KXAN contacted UTPD who said that they are withholding any comment about the trial until it's over because they have a number of officers who've been called to testify. 

The state also called Andie Duong, Haruka's friend Ginnifer Joe, a dance major in production classes with Haruka, and Sylvia Feghali, Haruka's roommate. 

Feghali was waiting up for Haruka to come home the night of April 3 because Haruka had forgotten her keys and needed help getting into their dorm.

Feghali said Haruka's keys were left attached to pepper spray in their dorm room. She teared up in the courtroom recalling how close she and Haruka became while being roommates, noting the two spent Thanksgiving together in 2015. 

After Feghali testified, she and Thomas shared a tearful hug in the hall outside the courtroom. 

Hidden from view: a look at the crime scene

The prosecution painted a picture of what Haruka was doing the night she disappeared. She had been working a long day as a stagehand at a dance production when she began her normal walk home from the Winship building on campus to the Prather residence hall.

Weiser's friends testified that she liked to take the walk on the path behind the UT Alumni Center and along Waller Creek because it was shorter and was a bit more scenic. 

A friend who saw Weiser at the dance production before she disappeared recalled seeing her with a blue and red duffel bag, a sweater, a calculus book, her Apple laptop and a book entitled "All the Light We Cannot See" gifted to her by her parents.

Both the prosecutors and defense mentioned how dark the area was where Haruka walked and ultimately was found dead. 

Austin Police Homicide Detective Ray Tynes was called as a witness as well. He explained that UT Austin Police called in APD to help lead their investigation once they realized the case may be a homicide. 

Tynes' photos and explanations showed Haruka's body was very hidden from view, tucked behind some boulders, covered with brush along the creekbed and not visible to people who may walk past on the trail nearby.

But through following a trail of evidence and blood stains, police were able to track down the body and some clues about how it might have gotten there. The APD detectives extensively photographed and videotaped the scene behind the UT Alumni Center before moving anything. 

Tynes showed photos of Haruka's body in the creekbed, but explained it was difficult for investigators to see the body until they looked behind some boulders and underneath a thick layer of tree branches which appeared to be intentionally placed there.

He explained Weiser was found naked, with the nylon strap tightly around her neck, clear bruising on her body and impact marks to her head. 

Tynes went over more evidence found in the creekbed nearby, including a pair of folded prescription eyeglasses. We learned in opening statements from the state that Criner had a unique prescription and that his most recent foster mother had bought him new eyeglasses.

They also found a woman's bloodstained bra next to a hammer that had a left claw broken off and a sock which appeared to be Weiser's and was balled up.

Tynes added that from looking at Wesier's body, he didn't believe she had any time to defend herself. He said that looking at her hands, it appeared someone tried unsuccessfully to take a ring off her finger. 

Safety on the UT campus

Also in the courtroom was Joell McNew, a parent of a UT student and the vice president of the campus safety group SafeHorns. McNew heard about Haruka's murder from her son who was also a theater and dance student back in 2016. 

She was emotionally impacted to see Haruka's father speak in the courtroom.

"He really took time to look at the images of his family and really take in the photos of his family with his daughter the last time he saw her alive," McNew said, "It was really powerful."

She was shocked to hear the prosecution say they believe Criner had been living in a storage unit on campus. 

"It just makes us wonder for all the assaults that we've talked about, and all the criminal transients between on campus and off campus, and students reporting it over and over, how many other people are or have been living on campus?" she wondered. 

Weiser's death as well as the 2017 killing of UT student Harrison Brown on campus have jumpstarted a slew of safety improvements on campus which McNew said needed to happen.

But hearing the witnesses in court Wednesday made her feel that there is much more work to be done by the police, the university, the city and students to truly make the 40 Acres a safer place. 

"We're committed to pray for justice for [Haruka] but to definitely honor her and continue advocating for safety," she said. 

It wasn't just McNew, many observers in the courtroom included UT community members past and present who, during recesses would discuss where they were on campus when they heard about the murder. 

KXAN's Alyssa Goard is covering the case and will live-tweet details throughout the day. There no audio recordings are allowed during this trial, however KXAN will bring you photos and videos of what happens in the courtroom.

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