The final words spoken by lawyers in Meechaiel Criner’s capital murder trial in the death of University of Texas student Haruka Weiser centered on the intellectual abilities of the 20-year-old high school dropout.
Criner’s defense suggested he’s not bright and could not have pulled off the violent attack that rocked the historically safe campus on the night of April 3, 2016.
But the prosecutors aiming to send Criner to prison said he has plenty of smarts and encouraged the jury to ignore his boyish exterior and alleged learning disability and the speech impediment that makes him difficult to understand. Guillermo Gonzalez, the lead prosecutor, noted that Criner was enrolled in challenging courses such as algebra and physics at Ellison High School in Killeen.
“He’s not the dummy homeless kid they want you to believe he is,” Gonzalez said. “He’s capable of sophisticated thinking.”
The jury of seven women and five men deliberated for more than four hours Thursday before going home for the night. In addition to capital murder, which carries an automatic life sentence, jurors may consider six other felony charges related to the death, robbery and sexual assault of Weiser, an 18-year-old scholarship dance student from Portland, Ore., who was finishing her first year at UT when she died.
Criner is ineligible for the death penalty because he was 17 at the time of the incident.
Criner’s lawyer, Ariel Payan, focused much of his closing arguments Thursday on evidence he said shows Criner was using his computer tablet around the time of Weiser’s death. The device’s operating system was running from 8:43 to 9:33 p.m., according to testimony this week from Manuel Fuentes, an investigator with the district attorney’s office. Weiser was killed about 9:40 p.m. Prosecutors contend no one was using the tablet at the time it was operating, noting the absence of internet searches or files accessed during that window of time.
Payan showed a photo of another man who police questioned about the crime after reviewing campus surveillance video and noted the physical resemblance between Criner and the man, who is 2 inches shorter than the 6-foot-tall Criner. Detective Anthony Nelson testified that the man has a history of sexual assault and is known to steal girls bicycles, but police ended their conversation with him after receiving information that investigators said tied Criner to the crime.
Seeking to make a point about Criner’s intellectual disability, Payan scolded his client during his closing arguments for telling the jury Wednesday “I don’t like my odds” for an acquittal. Criner, who elected to testify despite a warning from state District Judge David Wahlberg about the potential pitfalls, admitted it looked bad that police found him at a vacant building on Medical Arts Street with items belonging to Weiser, including a boot he was burning in a makeshift fire pit. He also had her schoolwork and phone, prosecutors say. Criner said he found the items at a dumpster.
“How stupid do you have to be to say that?” Payan said, adding that a guilty person would have lied. “That is the dumbest thing he could have said.”
Gonzalez had a different take on Criner’s testimony, saying it showed “manipulation, narcissism and deception.”
“That’s an exceptionally dangerous and frightening individual,” Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez also mentioned the many people who tried to help Criner after he ran away from a foster care home in Killeen in March 2016. A Georgetown police officer discovered Criner at a gas station and gave him a lift to Austin, leaving him some money for food. Once in Austin, Criner said people on the street gave him money, and one man bought him dinner at a restaurant where Criner also picked up a job application. The police officer who found Criner burning items in the vacant building declined to charge him with trespassing; instead, he made arrangements for Criner to live in a youth shelter and drove him there.
Now, Gonzalez told the jury, it’s time for the community “to do the right thing for” Weiser.
Gonzalez and fellow prosecutor Victoria Winkeler focused much of their final arguments on a bandana, a hammer, a bicycle and eyeglasses that they believe tie Criner to the crime.
Shortly before Weiser’s death, a man was captured on UT surveillance video following her on a bicycle and wearing a bandana around his neck. The next morning, detectives found an orange bandana and Weiser’s belongings in a trash can at the vacant building. Prosecutors showed the jury a selfie extracted from Criner’s tablet that shows him wearing an orange bandana.
The eyeglasses found at the crime scene match the model, style and prescription of glasses worn by Criner, according to testimony from two eye experts. From the witness stand Wednesday, Criner said the glasses look like his but are smaller. He said he lost his glasses after leaving them behind in a storage room at Royal-Memorial Stadium, where he had set up living quarters after his move to Austin.
Among the spectators in the packed courtroom Thursday was Lori Brown, the mother of slain UT student Harrison Brown, who was killed on campus 13 months after Weiser’s death from a stabbing attack that left three others injured. Former UT student Kendrex White has been charged with murder in connection with Brown’s death.