A woman who was part of the jury in Meechaiel Criner’s capital murder trial says she was bullied by other jurors into finding him guilty, but the testimony was not included at a Wednesday hearing requesting a new trial after Criner’s lawyers said they couldn’t verify her claims.
Criner’s defense requested the hearing to present evidence that they say shows Criner did not get a fair chance at his trial in July, when he was convicted of capital murder in University of Texas student Haruka Weiser’s death in April 2016.
The attorneys had planned to present an affidavit signed by juror Susana Lozano last month. In it, Lozano said she switched her verdict out of fear after the jury’s foreman lied and said the jury could not go home until they reached a decision.
Criner’s lead attorney, Ariel Payan, said he believes her but decided against presenting her complaint to the judge after he could not produce testimony from other jurors to corroborate Lozano’s allegation.
“We had serious issues in being able to verify that information, so we abandoned it for purposes of a motion for a new trial,” Payan said.
Without Lozano’s participation at the hearing, Criner’s lawyers shifted their arguments to evidence they say shows Criner was using his tablet computer at the time of Weiser’s death. After listening to two hours of testimony, state District Judge David Wahlberg announced he was putting off his ruling until Oct. 2.
Criner, who sat silently alongside his lawyers, is serving a life sentence in prison.
Matt Danner, a local forensic examiner who was hired by the defense, testified that he extracted data from Criner’s Nextbook tablet after the completion of the trial to look for evidence of activity before and around the time Weiser was killed.
Prosecutors believe Weiser, a freshman dance major, was attacked about 9:38 p.m. as she walked in campus along Waller Creek.
Danner presented the following timeline:
• From 7:15 p.m. to 7:41 p.m., someone logged onto the internet at a LifeWorks shelter to watch YouTube videos.
• At 8:45 p.m., the power button was accessed four times over a minute. Danner could not say for certain that a human had pressed the button, leaving open a theory floated by prosecutors at Criner’s trial that the tablet jostled in his backpack while he was riding a bicycle.
• At 9:33 p.m., the device was turned on and was opened. Five minutes later, prosecutors say Weiser was attacked.
Payan, the defense attorney, said the tablet being opened shows Criner was likely using it and therefore did not kill Weiser.
Prosecutor Victoria Winkeler told the judge the defense did not fulfill its requirement of producing new evidence and instead echoed the trial testimony of a prosecution witness who had addressed the tablet’s activity. Citing a 2009 ruling from the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, she said the defense had failed to show the data extraction had uncovered information that suggested Criner would prevail at a second trial.
At trial, Wahlberg denied a defense motion to delay further proceedings so an expert could have time to examine the tablet. The judge said the delay would have postponed the trial by months and posed a significant cost to taxpayers.
On Wednesday, Wahlberg appeared to be unmoved by the defense’s argument, saying Danner’s testimony about the tablet “doesn’t, at least in my mind, come close to negating the rest of the evidence in this case.”
Shortly after Weiser’s death, some of her clothing and other belongings were found with Criner at an abandoned building north of campus. Firefighters found him burning some of the items, including a black boot she was wearing on the night she was killed. Weiser’s laptop was later found in Criner’s locker at a LifeWorks shelter. Eyeglasses with Criner’s uncommon prescription were discovered near Weiser’s body. A man who matches Criner’s physical description was seen on campus surveillance video following Weiser down the Waller Creek path before emerging two hours later with a backpack that prosecutors say was hers.
The jury deliberated for nearly 11 hours before returning the verdict. When it was read out loud, Lozano was in tears.
In her affidavit, she said she does not believe the state proved its case beyond a reasonable doubt. She added that the foreman, Kenny Rogers, violated his juror’s oath by researching facts about the law and by encouraging participation from an alternate juror during deliberations. Alternate jurors were forbidden by the judge from joining jurors in deliberations.
Lozano said she also did research during the trial after a disagreement over direct and circumstantial evidence.
Lozano further accused Rogers of denying her request to signal to the court that the jury had deadlocked and was unable to resolve the case.
Prosecutors cast doubts on Lozano’s testimony.
“We talked to all of the other jurors, and it turned out there was no validity to the allegations,” prosecutor Guillermo Gonzalez said.