AUSTIN, Texas (CN) – A jury convicted a 20-year-old man Friday of capital murder for killing University of Texas freshman Haruka Weiser as she walked home to her dorm in April 2016.
Weiser, a dance and pre-med double major, was attacked on campus on her way home from dance practice on April 3, 2016. Her body was found two days later, near a creek that runs alongside a path that she frequently used to get to her dormitory.
A yellow nylon strap had been pulled tightly around her neck, strangling her to death, and the medical examiner found evidence of sexual assault. She had also been beaten against a hard object.
A jury in Travis County District Court in Austin spent 10 hours deliberating before finding Meechaiel Criner guilty Friday, after an eight-day trial. Criner was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole in 40 years.
During his testimony Wednesday, Criner said that being arrested was “the most awesome thing that ever happened to me,” as he described cops and barking dogs crashing through his room at a shelter for homeless youth.
Criner, who was homeless and squatting in Austin at the time of the murder – after running away from state foster care – was ineligible for the death penalty because he was 17 years old when the crime was committed. He pleaded not guilty.
Last month, Judge David Wahlberg threw out DNA evidence in the case after Criner’s defense attorneys argued that software used to analyze the evidence was not reliable.
The jury found that the circumstantial evidence, including hundreds of hours of campus security footage, was sufficient to prove that Criner committed the murder beyond a reasonable doubt.
Criner was found in possession of Weiser’s property, including her laptop, calculus textbook, and a black Doc Martin boot that he had tried to burn.
Investigators also found a hair on a Killeen High School T-shirt, which was “not suitable” for certain types of DNA testing, but was suitable for a mitochondrial DNA test, which found that it matched Weiser’s maternal line. Criner had attended Killeen High School, about an hour’s drive north of Austin, before running away from foster care.
The prosecution also submitted evidence from one of Criner’s notebook, which contained a fictional story he had written about a woman who is violently assaulted.
The victim’s father, Dr. Thomas Weiser, took the stand after the verdict Friday to read a statement directed at Criner.
“What can a father say to someone who killed his daughter,” Weiser’s father said. “What could possibly make a difference to you? So I’ll start with something simple: You killed my daughter. You brutally raped her and then you mercilessly killed her, and I can see that the truth of that means nothing to you.”
Criner did not look at Weiser’s father while he spoke.
Weiser’s father said he thought the prosecution had done a “great job” but that they “got one thing wrong.”
“In their closing argument they said that Haruka did not prevail,” he said. “That’s not entirely true, is it? I think you messed with the wrong girl that night, I really do. Because Haruka was so strong-willed and determined, and she loved her friends and she would never want to see them hurt. So she would not let this go. She would not go without a fight. She has been telling her story in every possible way. With all the clues her body could hold, down to a single strand of her hair.”
Weiser’s father said that he found comfort in knowing that his daughter helped to stop “a serial killer in his tracks.”
“Haruka did not choose to sacrifice herself, you made that choice for her,” he said. “But she didn’t die in vain. We will never know how many lives she saved through the events of her death, but judging by the arsenal of ropes and straps and cords and a plethora of gloves that you had gathered, she was the first victim in which you hoped to be a long line of unsolved murders.”
Ariel Payan, one of Criner’s defense attorney’s, said they would appeal.
University of Texas President Gregory Fenves said in a statement Friday that the 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.”
“Haruka’s life was dedicated to positivity and creativity,” Fenves said. “She adored living in Austin, and during the past two years the people of Austin have shown nothing but love and support to her family. That is the legacy she has left behind, and it is inspiring to everyone here at UT.”