The trial of Meechaiel Criner, the man indicted on capital murder charges in connection with the death of dance freshman Haruka Weiser, will begin on July 9.
Last month, presiding Judge David Wahlberg dismissed the majority of the DNA evidence in the case because of what he ruled were flawed analysis techniques used by a Texas Department of Public Safety forensic scientist. Prosecutors had planned to use this DNA to connect Criner to Weiser’s death.
Although the lead prosecutor told the Austin American-Statesman in June they are still confident they will be able to convict Criner at trial, two defense attorneys say the ruling has weakened the prosecution’s case. Russ Hunt Jr., an Austin criminal defense attorney, said this ruling could cause a jury to question the strength of the state’s case.
“A lot of people expect (to see DNA evidence during a trial), so if they don’t see it, they're very skeptical of other types of testimony, like live witnesses (and) circumstantial evidence,” Hunt said.
Without the majority of the DNA evidence, the prosecution will have to rely on circumstantial evidence instead, including surveillance video of the suspect, evidence found in Criner’s possession and witness testimony, said Suzanne Marie Spencer, an Austin criminal defense attorney.
“When the state, for whatever reason, doesn’t have DNA evidence, it will rely on the same type of evidence it has relied on for all the centuries before DNA evidence, (including) testimony,” Marie Spencer said in an email.
Weiser was reported missing in on April 4, 2016, after she did not return home from dance practice. Her body was found a day later behind the on-campus Etter-Harbin Alumni Center. Austin Police later arrested Criner as the suspect in the murder after finding him at an abandoned building burning items similar to those in Weiser’s possession, according to the arrest affidavit.
Criner was indicted by a Travis County grand jury in June 2016. The indictment accuses Criner of killing Weiser by strangulation with a ligature, as well as of other charges, including sexual assault, kidnapping and robbery.
Both Hunt and Spencer said the jury could also potentially hand down a verdict on other charges in the indictment, based on any additional evidence presented during the trial.
“There is a possibility that the jury could consider lesser offenses such as robbery, kidnapping or assault,” Spencer said in an email. “If the jury is given these options, they could find him guilty of one of those offenses rather than murder or capital murder.”
The United States Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty for minors was unconstitutional in 2005. Because Criner was 17 at the time of the arrest, he would face a maximum penalty of life in prison with the possibility of parole in 40 years if convicted of capital murder.
During a pre-trial hearing on July 2, the presiding judge said the trial will be finished by July 20. During the first two days of the trial, attorneys will select a 12-person jury and then will begin presenting their arguments.