Mental health could play a role in conviction of UT murder suspect

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Photo Credit: Caleb Kuntz | Daily Texan Staff

As the July 8 pretrial motions hearing for Meechaiel Khalil Criner — the suspect in the death of UT dance freshman Haruka Weiser — approaches, experts are debating what role his mental health will play during the trial.

On June 10, a Travis County grand jury indicted Criner on capital murder charges in the death of Weiser. The indictment accuses Criner of sexually assaulting Weiser and killing her by strangulation with “a ligature, a deadly weapon” and includes other charges, including attempted kidnapping and robbery.

As details of the murder continue to unfold, Criner’s complex family history has surfaced.

Criner was shuffled between his maternal grandmother’s care and Child Protective Services for most of his life. According to his sister and grandmother, who spoke to local news stations in early April, Criner was mentally ill and had been getting psychiatric help since childhood, KXAN reported. 

“He’s smart, real intelligent,” Mary Wadley, Criner’s grandmother, told KSLA News 12 in April. “But he had a problem, he talks to himself and walks back and forth like he’s fighting himself.”

Ariel Payan, Criner’s court-appointed attorney, and the rest of his defense team are expected to continue discussing the collection of evidence and other issues that need to be resolved through pretrial hearings before the case moves to trial.

In felony crimes, there is no “rule of thumb” for the timeline of cases, but two law experts said the case could go to trial in less than a year and could potentially take as little as a week to try. 

Criminals in Texas are tried as adults starting at age 17 but because of a 2005 Supreme Court decision, the death penalty cannot be given to minors. Therefore, if he is convicted, Criner will  automatically be sentenced to life in prison — with the possibility of parole after 40 years.

Because of speculation concerning Criner’s mental health, the defense team could potentially make a case for one of two claims: incompetency to stand trial or insanity at the time of the offense. 

“Competency to stand trial relates to his mental ability to communicate with his lawyer … and understand the roles of the various players in the courtroom,” said Gerry Morris, an Austin criminal defense attorney who has been practicing for nearly 40 years. “[Insanity] deals with his ability at the time of the offense to appreciate the wrongness of his act.”

If Criner were deemed incompetent to stand trial, the court would order Criner to seek professional treatment, putting the trial on hold until he regains competency. If the jury or judge decide Criner was insane at the time of the offense, he would be declared “not guilty by reason of insanity,” and would likely be housed in an inpatient facility and be under court supervision for most of the remainder of his life. 

Both claims require evaluation from mental health care professionals. 

“It’s very easy for a defendant to be tested for competency, because the specialists appointed are better than they have ever been,” said Keith Hampton, an Austin criminal defense lawyer who has been practicing for over 25 years. “The experts are kept at a high standard — they are required to be specialists in forensic psychology and have to consistently update their education.”

In insanity claims, however, mental health experts testify during the actual trial, making the case “a battle of the experts,” according to Morris. This claim, however, could be easy for the prosecutor to refute because Criner was found burning evidence connected to the murder, Morris said. 

Criner and his defense team could also opt for a plea bargain. However, this is unlikely because Criner would automatically be sentenced to life in prison with the chance of parole after 40 years if convicted, which he could be sentenced too even without a plea bargain. The jury could also determine Criner is not guilty of murder, but guilty of the lesser crimes included in the capital
murder charge.