Discussion about the intersection of race and criminal justice was at the center of the jury selection process Tuesday in the capital murder trial of defendant Meechaiel Criner, an African-American runaway who is accused of strangling and sexually assaulting University of Texas student Haruka Weiser two years ago.
A Travis County resident who was being vetted by attorneys for a seat on the jury asked to be removed from consideration because of strong views he says he harbors about the way the legal system mistreats people of color. In response to a question from the prosecution about the mandatory life sentence Criner faces if he’s found guilty, the man said he recently became a naturalized U.S. citizen and his time living in the country has led him to believe that minorities who are accused of a crime do not get fair trials.
The man suggested he might favor Criner and asked to be disqualified — a request that was initially denied but later approved by state District Judge David Wahlberg, who had stressed the importance of getting a diverse jury.
“It’s only through the participation of a wide variety of people that we can achieve justice,” he said. “I want you to consider having your voice heard.”
The man’s commentary came one day after Criner’s lawyer made an oral objection in court because none of the three black candidates who were on Monday’s jury panel were chosen for the jury. Defense attorney Ariel Payan had wanted to pick a black man around Criner’s age, 20, but was stopped when prosecutors used one of their 10 allotted strikes to send him home.
In defending the decision, prosecutor Victoria Winkeler said a questionnaire submitted by the man contained many confusing responses that called into question his fitness to serve on the jury. Earlier in the process, two other black candidates were dropped from consideration for undisclosed reasons.
On Monday, six women and three men with a wide range of ages were selected to the jury from a panel of roughly 75 candidates. The remaining selections on Tuesday were two men and a woman, bringing the jury breakdown to seven women and five men. The two alternates are a woman and a man. None of them are black.
The presentation of evidence is scheduled to begin Wednesday, a day ahead of the schedule Wahlberg demanded.
Of Tuesday’s panel, 26 candidates were excused and did not come back after lunch, most of them because they said they had already formed an opinion on the case through their exposure to media stories.
Later, a black woman requested to be excused because she is pregnant. Wahlberg tried to talk her out of it, saying “we need someone with your background and outlook.”
The woman ended up being sent home after she said she believed she couldn’t judge Criner because she had reviewed news reports in which Criner’s lawyers said their client suffers from mental health issues.