AUSTIN, Texas (CN) – Haruka Weiser, a University of Texas freshman who was murdered on campus in 2016, was an accomplished dancer who aspired to become a doctor, a prosecutor told jurors in an Austin courtroom Wednesday.
The Travis County jury will decide whether 20-year-old Meechaiel Criner is guilty of murdering Weiser on April 3, 2016. Criner, who was homeless and squatting in Austin at the time of the murder – after running away from state foster care – is accused of sexually assaulting and strangling Weiser in a random attack that occurred while she was walking back to her dormitory after a dance rehearsal.
Criner could be sentenced to life in prison if found guilty, but he is ineligible for the death penalty because he was 17 years old at the time of the murder. Criner has pleaded not guilty.
In opening statements Wednesday in Travis County District Court, state prosecutor Guillermo Gonzalez described Weiser as an ambitious and talented student who came to the University of Texas from Portland, Oregon, on a dance scholarship and had just started a double major in pre-med before she was murdered.
Weiser’s body was discovered April 5, 2016, near a creek that runs alongside a path on campus that she frequently used. Her naked body was hidden behind large boulders and covered with tree branches. A yellow nylon item had been pulled tightly around her neck, and the medical examiner found evidence of sexual assault.
“She had suffered brutal injuries,” Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez also described to the jury several items belonging to Weiser that were allegedly found in Criner’s possession or at the places where he had been staying.
The assistant district attorney said police found a black Doc Martin boot that Criner had tried to burn and pieces of Weiser’s calculus textbook, her laptop, and her duffel bag among the defendant’s possessions.
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.
Eyeglasses that match Criner’s prescription were also found at the crime scene, according to Gonzalez.
The prosecutor also told jurors that a motion-sensitive camera on campus captured Weiser being followed by a young black man “wearing distinctive clothing and riding a very distinct type of bike.”
“All of this evidence, which tends to corroborate and support each other, will convince you beyond a reasonable doubt that defendant is guilty of capital murder,” Gonzalez said.
Defense attorney Darla Davis spent much of her opening statement reminding the jury of their instructions and duty to draw “reasonable inferences.”
She said the evidence would convince the jury that Weiser was “viciously attacked in a brutal and monstrous manner,” and show that Criner was living in abandoned buildings, and she said that neither of these facts are disputed.
However, Davis said that Criner did not kill Weiser and was not present at the time of the murder.
The state began to call witnesses on Wednesday, first bringing Weiser’s father, Dr. Thomas Weiser, to the stand.
Weiser’s father, who lives in Portland, said he did not learn of his daughter’s disappearance until April 5, because the university somehow did not have his or his wife’s contact information. The university contacted his neighbor, who was listed as an alternate emergency contact, and the neighbor asked if he had “heard any more from UT.”
After trying unsuccessfully to get a hold of the university police department, he saw that his daughter’s roommate had sent him a Facebook message April 4, informing him that his daughter was missing.
“That’s when I realized that it wasn’t just one night she had been missing, but two,” Weiser’s father said. “That’s when the full impact really hit me.”
He said that the last time he, her mother, and her two younger siblings saw Weiser had been a month before her death at the end of a family spring break vacation trip to Mexico.
“We all hugged goodbye,” her father said. “We expected to see each other soon.”
Travis County District Court Judge David Wahlberg has ordered both sides to finish the trial by July 20.