AUSTIN — During the opening arguments in the trial for the man accused of killing a University of Texas at Austin student, the prosecution outlined the timeline of Haruka Weiser's death and called on her father as the first witness.
Meechaiel Criner is charged with capital murder in connection to the death of Weiser on April 3, 2016. Officials said Weiser was on her way home from dance practice when she was attacked. Criner is not only accused of murdering the UT dance freshman and discarding her body in Waller Creek, he's also suspected of sexually assaulting her.
In court, the prosecution argued that Criner intentionally caused Weiser's death with a ligature. Criner has pleaded not guilty to the charge, attorneys said.
The state argued that Weiser, who was 18 at the time of her death, attended UT on a dance scholarship and was double majoring in dance and pre-med. The night of her murder, Weiser was working as a stagehand and was dressed in all black.The prosecutors said around 9:20 p.m. Weiser took a shortcut home, along Waller Creek on a dimly lit path, because they said she appreciated the nature aspect. Prosecutors said Criner is seen on camera crossing paths with Weiser while he was on his bike before getting off of it to follow her. The prosecution highlights a two hour-window from 9:38 p.m. to 11:20 p.m. before Criner is allegedly seen on camera again with his bicycle and a duffel bag.
Prosecutors said Weiser never made it home and a text conversation with her roommate, who told investigators that she was waiting up for Weiser because she had forgotten her keys, ended abruptly. Prosecutors said in the days that Weiser was reported missing, Criner was found trespassing at an abandoned building two blocks away from the UT campus. Prosecutors said AFD found Criner and a homemade fire in the building. They said one fireman noticed a burned dock martin boot and pieces of a calculus book near the fire pit.
On Tuesday, Weiser's naked body was found on the west bank of Waller Creek. Prosecutors said she suffered injuries to her face and it appeared her head was beaten against a hard object, possibly against a boulder. They noted a yellow nylon type item was used tightly around her neck, cutting off her air and blood circulation. The medical examiner's office told prosecutors that her death was by strangulation but they also noted signs of sexual assault. Prosecutors said two days after her body was found, police began to look into Criner as a suspect after reviewing surveillance video. Prosecutors said investigators found black women's tights and a burned dock martin boot in a small box. They also found notebooks belonging to Haruka and a black turtleneck-like shirt, with other belongings at the vacant building. Prosecutors say police also found her duffle bag and laptop computer in a storage room Criner was using.
After recounting the timeline, prosecutors called on Thomas Weiser, 53, to testify.
Thomas Weiser said Haruka Weiser was his first born child and that she was a responsible person, a great student and someone who loved to dance.
He said he remembered visiting the dance department with his daughter and recalled taking the shortcut path with her. He told the jurors that he did not feel the path was safe and advised her to take another route at night. Thomas Weiser said the last time he saw his daughter was at a Tucson Airport.
He said, "I just think about the last time I ever saw her, touched her.”
Thomas said his neighbor, who was listed as an emergency contact for Haruka, had called him asking if he had heard from UT. She told him that Haruka had not come home that night.
“My heart kind of sank, because this is kind of unusual for her," he said. "Nothing I would ever expect to happen.”
He said he also received a text from Haruka's roommate.
“That’s when I realized it hadn’t just been one night she was missing, but two," he said. "That’s when the full impact really hit me.”
Another witness, one of Haruka's dance classmates, was also called to the stand.
“She was my first friend, my best friend,” said 21-year-old Andrea "Andie" Duong.
She outlined communications she had with Haruka leading up to her death and described the path Haruka would normally take to and from her dorm.
Another friend was called to the stand. Ginnifer Lee Joe said she saw Haruka that Sunday wearing all black and carrying a blue duffel bag with red handles. She also described its contents.
Haruka's freshman year roommate Sylvia Feghali also reported seeing Haruka on Sunday carrying the bag wearing all black. She said she received a call from Haruka asking her if she had left her keys at home. Feghali said she found the keys and told her to call her when she arrived and she would let her inside the dorm.
She said she grew tired and texted Haruka that she would leave the door unlocked for her. She never made it home.
Another witness and friend, Elizabeth "Lizzie" Tan recalled being on the wardrobe crew with Haruka. She saw her on Sunday dressed in black, which was normal attire for crew members. She said she got a text from Andie on Monday asking if she had heard from Haruka and that she contacted police around 10 a.m. Tan said she was the one who texted Haruka's father.
A UT police officer who responded to the missing person report was the next witness. The officer responded to the call, went to the dorm, asked for permission to see the room and secured it. The officer reported they walked along the creek and did not find anything out of the ordinary on Monday. After responding to Haruka's class and continuing contact with her friends, police decided to reach out Haruka's emergency contact.
That officer said he later reviewed the surveillance video showing Haruka and the suspect. The officer described seeing a small female walking south and saw another victim park a bike to start following.
The officer recalled seeing a black sock on a rock in the middle of the creek and later Haruka's naked body, bruised and covered in branches. A nylon strap, near the body, is visible in this photo.
A UT police lieutenant was next. Lt. Joe Pena recalled walking the path and spotting the camera. Knowing it could be the path to Haruka's dorm, he requested video, in which he said he saw a black male riding a bike. That person is spotted a second time looking back and in the background a second person dressed in black can be seen with something glowing in hand. The person gets off their bike and starts heading in that direction.
A homicide detective with APD described more photos shown of the scene.
He pointed out blood markings and various flagged items, not all of which were relevant. Some of the items included a hammer with the left claw missing, a bra that he said appeared to be stained with blood, and a pair of folded prescription eye glasses. He showed the trail of evidence headed south toward the boulders. The detective pointed out a bloodied rock, calling it a definite assault location.
The detective said it appeared as if the suspect tried to hide her body with brush.
He also described how Haruka’s bruised body was found, including impact injuries on her head. The only article of clothing on the victim was a sock. The sock appears to match the sock, marked as evidence, left on the creek bed.
According to KVUE's news partners at the Austin American-Statesman, seven women and five men have been selected to be jurors in this trial. A judge has ruled that the trial may last no longer than two weeks.
If convicted, Criner faces an automatic life sentence.