As trial date nears, Meechaiel Criner’s defense spar over jury questions

Meechaiel Criner in court on July 8, 2016. (KXAN Photo)
Meechaiel Criner in court on July 8, 2016. (KXAN Photo)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Defense and prosecution stood before Judge David Wahlberg at a Travis County courtroom Thursday morning in a pre-trial hearing for the case charging Meechaiel Criner with capital murder.

Criner, 19, is charged with capital murder in the 2016 death of University of Texas at Austin student Haruka Weiser, a charge he has pled not guilty too. Criner was arrested two days after Weiser’s body was found. Because he was 17 years old at the time of the homicide, Criner is not eligible for the death penalty if convicted.

Criner’s attorney Ariel Payan said the attorneys are trying to come to an agreement on the questions they want to give their jury pool prior to having them sit on the case.

“We’ve provided a sample questionnaire we hope the state will agree to, and we’re going to meet with them again next week or the week after and try to come to a conclusion,” Payan said. He added that the questionnaire currently has around 25 questions, but he imagines more will be added soon.

Because of the media exposure this case has received, the trial will require a larger-than-normal jury pool, Payan said. He expects jury selection will go for about two days, starting with two pools of around 80 potential jurors.

Payan explained that Criner had been brought from jail to the courthouse but did not appear in court Thursday.

“He’s doing pretty well, he’s had some issues there but nothing that is delaying the trial,” said Payan.

In December, Criner’s attorney Ariel Payan said that he was still waiting on DNA results, adding that there was genetic material found on Weiser’s body that was not hers. He also told KXAN in December that the broken freezer at the Austin Police Department may impact the case, though the DNA from this case was stored after the freezer was fixed, Payan said he had no way of knowing it was secure.

Thursday Payan said the defense is “very interested” in what has been going on with the DNA labs, but wasn’t sure whether or not it would become a bigger issue in the case.

This spring, the Travis County District Attorney’s Office said they will not be offering any kind of plea deal to Criner. Payan said Thursday that the case is on track for an Oct. 2 trial date.

Jury Selection Process

Jeffrey Abramson, a law professor at UT Austin and an expert on juries, explained how the process of jury selection will work in Criner’s trial moving forward.

Abramson said that defining the questions jury pools are asked can make a big difference.

“It’s important in a case like this which is subject to massive pre-trial publicity and in a case where you have an interracial crime, if you put both of those together, the defense wants to have broad latitude or leeway to uncover hidden bias and prejudice,” Abramson said.

Once the list of questions is agreed upon, each side has an unlimited number of “challenges for cause” where attorneys have to state a legal reason why a juror is disqualified, whether that’s bias, disability, or illiteracy.

According to Texas law in capital cases where the state does not seek the death penalty, the state and the defendant are each entitled to 10 peremptory challenges where attorneys can strike jurors from the pool without listing a reason. Though, Abramson added, that judges can question those peremptory challenges if they suspect discrimination based on race, gender, or religion.

Attorneys will eventually whittle down the pool to 12 jurors and several alternates.

Though we don’t know exactly what kinds of questions will be asked of this jury pool, Abramson said that it’s likely attorneys will ask whether the people in the pool have ties to UT, whether they or a loved one has been sexually assaulted, or whether they follow what is going on in the news.

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