SALT LAKE CITY — After nearly six years of drawn-out legal battles, a jury on Friday found Esar Met guilty of murdering and kidnapping a 7-year-old neighbor girl.
"It's finally time Hser Ner Moo receive justice, and she did today," said Salt Lake County deputy district attorney Rob Parrish, who began working the case just two days after Hser's body was found in 2008.
A five-woman, three-man jury took about five hours before unanimously reaching guilty verdicts on charges of aggravated murder and child kidnapping, first-degree felonies, in the March 31, 2008, death of the Myanmarese refugee girl. Prosecutors say he also raped the child, but he wasn't charged with that crime.
Hser's family, including her father, mother and brothers, wiped away tears as they sat in the courtroom listening to the verdict.
Outside the courtroom, parents Cartoon Wah and Pearlly Wa, who were aided by interpreters during their testimonies on the witness stand, attempted to say a couple of words in English to reporters.
But it was their tears and emotions that spoke louder than words.
"No more daughter," was all Hser's father, Cartoon Wah, could say as he wiped away his tears.
His wife showed her appreciation for prosecutors and jury by declaring, "God bless America."
Family friend Ben Pender also expressed gratitude to the prosecutors and the jury on behalf of the family.
"The truth came out over the past couple of weeks and everybody was able to see the truth in regards to this," he said. "They do believe justice has been served."
Met stood without emotion, as he had through most of the trial, occasionally looking down as the verdict was read and an interpreter stood next to him translated.
When Met, 26, is sentenced on May 7, he will face either 20 years to life in prison, or a sentence of life without the possibility of parole. Prosecutors decided last year not to seek the death penalty because of language barriers, the fact that the case had stalled for so long and other difficulties.
She's only dead because of one selfish act by the defendant to satisfy his sexual desire. This was not an accident.
–Salt Lake County deputy district attorney Robert Parrish
Met's attorneys left the courtroom through a back door without commenting. But Parrish said he was pleased with the outcome.
"It's been a long, long time coming, but we're very pleased with the way we saw the evidence come in and the work of the jury which was really just nothing short of amazing with the difficult case like this," he said.
Parrish declined to talk about how the case had affected him personally, but conceded he became a little choked up while delivering closing arguments earlier in the day.
"I always do. My speciality is child physical abuse and child homicide and it's impossible to do one of these cases without getting emotional. The day that I don't get emotional in some way, I'll probably retire," he said.
When he retires, Parrish is sure this case will stand out in his career. "Never been one like it, probably never be one like it again," he said.
Before reaching their verdict, jurors were asked by attorneys to consider whether there was another logical explanation for Hser's death, or if common sense dictated that Met was guilty of kidnapping, raping and killing her.
"She's only dead because of one selfish act by the defendant to satisfy his sexual desire," Parrish told the jury during his closing arguments. "This was not an accident."
But defense attorney Michael Peterson asked the jury to consider the case from Met's point of view.
"Mr. Met's position is quite simple," Peterson said. "He did not abduct, he did not detain, he did not assault, he did not sexually assault, he did not kill Hser Ner Moo."
We're asking that you come back with a not guilty verdict and that's difficult because we have a family here suffering, we have a community here suffering. … Perform your duties fairly. If there is a logical alternative ... then you cannot convict Mr. Met of a guilty verdict.
–defense attorney Michael Peterson
Parrish emphasized to jurors that meeting the burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt was not the same as proof beyond all doubt.
"Use your own common sense, and try not to get too caught up in little details that would make you miss the forest through individual trees," Parrish said. "A doubt is not reasonable if it's based on purely speculation or remote possibility.
"Don't get caught up in the little details that are not important or significant in this case," Parrish encouraged the jury. "When the defense suggests there should be witnesses, that's ridiculous."
Hser was "sexually assaulted, repeatedly beaten, strangled, had her arm bent and broken, and ultimately killed by a massive blow or blows to her chest," Parrish said, telling jurors that her arm was snapped like a twig. "Imagine the kind of pain that would have been involved with that."
The defense cast suspicions on the actions of Met's roommates. But Parrish said that theory "evaporated."
"Blaming any of the roommates for these crimes is not reasonable," he said.
Parrish reminded jurors of the DNA evidence — blood on Met's jacket and Met's DNA found under Hser's fingernails. He closed by describing what a special and loved girl Hser was.
"There's a need for justice in this case, ladies and gentlemen," he said.
During his closing arguments, Peterson said he understood that such a crime prompted a cry from both the girl's family and the community, but he told the jury it needed to go beyond the "raw emotion."
"We're asking that you come back with a not guilty verdict, and that's difficult because we have a family here suffering, we have a community here suffering," he said.
He said the evidence was far from convincing. While prosecutors had suggested that Met fled to his aunt's Cottonwood Heights home after killing the girl, Peterson said Met had previously planned that visit and never acted suspiciously.
When Met arrived at his aunt's home, he was calm. He didn't try to shower or wash his clothes. He didn't panic or seem anxious or worried even after he received a phone call there asking if he had seen Hser and another saying the police were coming to talk to him.
"If the state's theory is that a panicked killer put a body in a shower and made a bolt for the bus, what's the next (move)?" Peterson asked. "Police are coming, you politely excuse yourself, get out the door and hide somewhere. (Met) sat there, ate with them, waited for the police to come."
Atherton complimented the jurors for their work before discharging them, and then thanked both the prosecution and defense.
"I've rarely seen better lawyering, better preparation," she said of the case.
Adult Probation and Parole was ordered to prepare a pre-sentence report on Met. Attorneys have until Feb. 21 to file post-trial motions.
Contributing: Mike Anderson