2:13 p.m. update: A Travis County jury found Meechaiel Criner guilty of capital murder in the April 2016 death of dance freshman Haruka Weiser, sentencing him to an automatic life sentence with the possibility of parole in 40 years.
After eight days of testimony in the 167th Criminal District Court, the seven women and five men on the jury spent more than 10 hours deliberating before returning the guilty verdict Friday, convicting Criner of the first on-campus homicide at UT-Austin since 1966.
Many jurors cried as they announced the guilty verdict, while the gallery was completely silent as the jury proceeded confirm one by one that they found Criner guilty of capital murder.
The judge ruled in June 2018 that DNA evidence collected at the crime scene would not be admitted in trial, which meant the jury ruled largely on circumstantial evidence during their deliberations.
Prosecutors Guillermo Gonzalez, Rickey Jones and Victoria Winkeler said the circumstantial evidence proved Criner intentionally caused the death of Weiser by strangulation on April 3, 2016, while also committing aggravated sexual assault, kidnapping or robbery.
Defense attorneys Ariel Payan, Darla Davis and Jeremy Slaughter said Criner being found at an abandoned building with items connected to Weiser’s death only proves that Criner, a homeless 17-year-old at the time, had scavenged the items from a dumpster and not that he had killed Weiser.
More than thirty witnesses testified for the prosecution, including Weiser’s father, Weiser’s friends, UT employees, and members of the Austin Fire and Austin Police Departments. Many of these witnesses testified about items connected to Weiser, including black clothing, a math notebook and a blue duffel bag, which police and firefighters found in Criner’s possession.
Witnesses for the prosecution also testified about examining a pair of eyeglasses found at the crime scene with a similar prescription to Criner’s and about surveillance video of the suspect walking toward Waller Creek in the same direction as a person prosecutors say was Weiser.
Witnesses for the defense, including private investigators, a Georgetown Police Department officer and a volunteer with Court Appointed Special Advocates, testified about having positive interactions with Criner and gave descriptions of the areas surrounding Waller Creek and the abandoned building.
Criner also testified about where he was on the days surrounding Weiser’s death, including the storage room, the abandoned building and Lifeworks. Criner denied committing sexual assault, murder, kidnapping and robbery, and said he was still confused why he was arrested.
In his closing statements, Payan said Criner was unfamiliar with Waller Creek and would not have been able to navigate the rocky terrain of the area in the dark. Payan said that without DNA testing done on any of the evidence collected, nothing ties Criner to the scene of Weiser’s death.
“This is a circumstantial evidence case,” Payan said. “They want you to fill in the blanks. Don’t leap to those conclusions. Mick did not commit this crime.”
In her closing statements, Winkeler said Criner was hunting for a victim and had prepared a ligature in his backpack to strangle Weiser. Winkeler said that while Weiser believed the path by Waller Creek to be full of beauty and life, Criner saw Waller Creek as the perfect location to pull off a murder.
“You should now know, (Criner) committed this horrific and brutal murder,” Winkeler said. “You don’t get a ligature and pull it so tight as to murder (a person) without intending to do so.”