A Travis County jury found Meechaiel Criner guilty of capital murder Friday for the violent death of University of Texas student Haruka Weiser, bringing closure to the shocking homicide that rocked Austin and the state’s flagship university in April 2016.
Criner did not react when the verdict was read or when Weiser’s father, Dr. Thomas Weiser, took the witness stand and described him as an aspiring serial killer who was stopped before he could hurt anyone else. Criner, 20, was sentenced to life in prison.
“She was the first victim in what you hoped would be a long run of unsolved murders,” Weiser told Criner.
Weiser said his daughter had not died in vain and had been telling her story through the clues investigators followed, beginning with black smoke from a vacant building north of campus where Criner was found burning her belongings.
“I think you messed with the wrong girl that night,” Weiser said.
The verdict came down at 2:14 p.m. after nearly 11 hours of jury deliberations that began Thursday afternoon. As state District Judge David Wahlberg polled the 12 jurors individually, one of the seven women on the panel cried while affirming her guilty verdict.
Juror Kenneth Rogers told the American-Statesman that a handful of jurors had questions about certain pieces of evidence but at no point was anyone adamant that Criner was innocent.
“There were people who had an inclination of innocence, but we talked through the process and evaluated the evidence,” Rogers said.
Within minutes of the verdict, UT President Gregory L. Fenves sent an email to students announcing the jury’s decision and paying tribute to Haruka Weiser, a scholarship dance major who wanted to be a doctor. The email referred to Criner as the “suspect” and not by name. Fenves’ chief of staff, Carlos Martinez, was in the courtroom for the verdict with Soncia Reagins-Lilly, UT’s vice president for student affairs and dean of students.
“During the trial, emotions have come rushing back for so many in our community,” Fenves wrote. “A verdict provides some closure, but it doesn’t heal the pain or ease the sense of loss felt by Haruka’s family and all of the students, faculty members and staff members to whom she meant so much. We still hurt terribly. We still feel her loss on a profound level.”
The conviction triggered an automatic life sentence, the stiffest possible punishment for Criner, a transient runaway from Killeen who was ineligible for the death penalty because he was 17 at the time of the crime. He will be eligible for parole in 40 years, when he is 60.
Thomas Weiser, a doctor in Portland, Ore., who is married and has two other children, told Criner the state parole board will need to build another room to house the many letters he plans to mail requesting that Criner stay behind bars.
Ariel Payan, an attorney for Criner, said he will appeal the conviction but declined to comment further. He built much of his closing arguments Thursday on evidence that showed Criner’s computer tablet was in use at the time of Weiser’s death.
Testimony over the two-week trial shed light on key events between Weiser’s April 3 death and Criner’s April 7 arrest.
The morning after Weiser was killed — but before she was found — Austin firefighters responded to a call about a fire inside a vacant building north of campus on Medical Arts Street. They found Criner burning items that belonged to Weiser, including a black Dr. Martens boot she was wearing the night she was killed.
From the witness stand, Criner told the jury Wednesday that he acquired the items after rummaging through backpacks at a nearby dumpster. He said he also found a red girls bicycle — an item that played a key role in the Austin police investigation.
Criner was kicked out of the building and taken by a police officer to a LifeWorks shelter on South First Street. The next day, a university police officer found Weiser’s remains laid between two boulders on Waller Creek and covered with tree limbs. She had been beaten, sexually assaulted and strangled by a tow rope, a medical examiner testified.
Homicide detectives reviewed campus surveillance video and identified the suspect in Weiser’s death as a man who was seen riding a girls bicycle on campus. The man got off the bike and followed Weiser down a dimly lit path.
After learning Criner had left behind a girls bike at the abandoned building, Austin police detective Ray Tynes visited the area and came across a garbage bin with other things Criner had thrown away. It contained an orange bandana similar to the one worn by the man in the surveillance video. In addition, a sweater found in the bin was linked to Weiser through a receipt in the pocket.
Criner was arrested at LifeWorks, where Weiser’s laptop was found in his locker.
But the investigation continued.
Days later, investigators learned through university employees that Criner had been living in a storage room at Royal-Memorial Stadium in late March. A student who wanted to use the room for his club rowing team took a photo of the messy area, capturing images of a hammer and a tow rope — tools prosecutors said Criner used to attack Weiser.
Detective Anthony Nelson, the lead investigator on the case, told the Statesman he interviewed Criner for two hours before his arrest. Criner denied involvement in the attack. Video of the interview was not played for the jury.
“He is the most calculated and manipulative individual that I’ve ever met,” Nelson said outside the courtroom after the jury delivered its verdict. “Very well trained. Trained, I don’t know how. Maybe it’s natural. He is very good.”