Trial date pushed back to August in UT murder case

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Photo Credit: Caleb Kuntz | Daily Texan Staff

Following a DNA backlog and other delays, the trial date for Meechaiel Khalil Criner has been pushed back to August at the earliest by Travis County Judge David Wahlberg.

Criner was indicted on a charge of capital murder in connection to the death of dance freshman Haruka Weiser by a Travis County grand jury last June. The two-page indictment accused Criner of sexually assaulting Weiser and killing her by strangulation with “a ligature, a deadly weapon,” as well as other offenses Criner is alleged to have committed during the crime, including attempted kidnapping and robbery.

While it was originally scheduled for later this month, the trial has been significantly delayed as Criner’s attorneys are still awaiting DNA results. Since the Austin Police Department’s forensic lab was shut down last June when the Texas Forensic Science Commission discovered the lab was using improper and outdated methods, the overflow of forensic tests have been sent to the Texas Department of Public Safety, which is processing 20 of APD’s cases each month.

Despite this, APD still has thousands of cases backlogged with thousands more being questioned for credibility. The closure of the lab has caused significant delays in Criner’s case.

“It’s delaying my ability to investigate my case and advise my client and do all the things I need to do,” Ariel Payan, Criner’s court-appointed attorney, told the Daily Texan last fall. “When you have a major metropolitan’s lab fail, that’s caused us a ripple effect through the whole system. The problem is when I get it, I have to do all my fact-checking to make sure they did it correctly, and that’s going to take a while too.”

Additionally, Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore announced last week she will not offer Criner a plea deal when his trial begins. In criminal cases, plea bargains can end a case without a trial by allowing the defendant to plead guilty to a crime without a trial in exchange for reduced or dismissed charges.

“We want a trial, and we aren’t going to plea bargain it,” Moore told the Austin American-Statesman last week. “I think Haruka Weiser’s killer deserves punishment to the fullest extent of the law.”

Weiser was reported missing early last April after failing to return home from a dance rehearsal the previous evening. On April 5, Weiser’s body was found in Waller Creek, behind the on-campus alumni center near San Jacinto Boulevard and East 23rd Street. Criner was later found burning several items — including a notebook with college-level coursework and a black jacket, both likely belonging to Weiser — in a trashcan fire on Medical Arts Street, according to his arrest affidavit.

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, because he was a minor at the time of the offense, if he is convicted, Criner will automatically be sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole after 40 years.

Criner is scheduled to appear in court again on March 23.