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For more than six years, through countless court hearings and hours of testimony, in the face of grisly accusations and raw grief, Esar Met has said nothing.
In an instant Wednesday, that all changed.
Met removed the headphones from his ears, stood to face the judge about to sentence him for the murder of 7-year-old Hser Ner Moo, and spoke.
"I didn't kill that girl," said Met, 27, who in January was found guilty of sexually assaulting and beating the child to death. "This girl is a girl I used to play with. That girl loved me and I loved her. ... I'm telling the truth: I didn't kill the girl."
His long dark hair hung loosely around the shoulders of his yellow jumpsuit as he spoke. He gestured with his head and his upper body because his hands were shackled to his back.
He didn't turn to look at the child's family, who sat behind him and wept.
"I didn't touch the girl," insisted Met, whose words were translated by an interpreter. "At the time the girl was found dead in that apartment, I wasn't there."
It's the same story his defense team told jurors during trial: that Met was Hser Ner Moo's playmate and friend, that he didn't kill her, that someone else must have one of Met's four roommates, perhaps, or a stranger who found a way into the often-unlocked South Salt Lake apartment.
In January, it wasn't enough to persuade a jury, who found Met guilty of aggravated kidnapping and aggravated murder in the 2008 disappearance and death of Hser Ner Moo.
On Wednesday, it wasn't enough to convince 3rd District Judge Judith Atherton to sentence Met to any less than the maximum possible punishment: life in prison, no parole.
"My greatest concern, whether it's called justice or not, is that for these six years, as reflected in the pre-sentence report and as spoken here today in court, is Mr. Met has not expressed any responsibility, any remorse," Atherton said. "He's not required to. ... But he has been found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt."
As the judge handed down Met's sentence, defense attorney, Denise Porter, stood at his side.
She had asked the judge to exercise "mercy" and "grace" when considering whether her client would ever again be free a status the Burmese refugee enjoyed in this country for only 30 days before he was arrested in the murder of Hser Ner Moo.
"Esar is going to prison today. Prison is mandatory," Porter said. "Mercy is not deserved, it is not earned, it is something that must be given. ... We rarely talk about it here because we talk about justice. But justice and mercy can coexist."
Porter, who turned to address Hser Ner Moo's grieving family before making her appeal to the judge on behalf of her client.
Met, she said, has been suspicious of her and her colleagues from the first day they were assigned to his case.
He didn't trust these lawyers who were sent by the government to defend him. He didn't trust the armed guards who loaded him into a van every time he had to appear in court. He didn't trust that he would not be harmed or tortured or killed for telling the truth whatever that might be.
"We're asking him to trust what we tell him in this land that he lived in for 30 days and is not the same as the land he came from," Porter explained. "As frustrating as it is as an advocate, it isn't surprising to me that Esar isn't helping himself today [by apologizing or expressing remorse]. It's something that is beyond his capabilities."
Met's family his mother and brother, and an aunt who lives in the Salt Lake Valley sat behind him in the gallery. Across the aisle, the victim's family members listened to proceedings through an interpreter whose words were transmitted into headsets.
The Met family was not given any headsets. They didn't know Met had been sent to prison for the rest of his life until the proceedings were over.
According to trial testimony, Met lured Hser Ner Moo into his basement apartment after she wandered off on March 30, 2008. He beat and sexually assaulted her, prosecutors said, inflicting no less than 21 injuries to the small girl.
Then, prosecutor Robert Parrish said, he left her to die.
Her broken body was found the next day after a widespread search of the South Parc homes where both Hser Ner Moo and Met lived. Met was arrested at the home of his aunt and uncle, where, prosecutors, said he had fled.
Ultimately, it was forensic evidence collected from the child's body and Met's clothing that convinced the jury of Met's guilt Hser Ner Moo had DNA under her fingernails that matched Met's genetic profile. Prosecutors alleged the DNA was transferred as the child fought to escape the hellish and painful ordeal that led to her untimely death.
"What we have is a virtually helpless 7-year-old girl who struggled to fight against what was happening," Parrish said. "[Met] showed no restraint, no compunction, no moral concern at all. "
The judge noted that Met "groomed" Hser Ner Moo to be his victim by playing with her and other children to gain their trust. That's part of the reason she sentenced him so harshly, she said she feared he was "extremely dangerous" and could kill again.
Hser Ner Moo's parents, two older brothers and uncle also Burmese refugees addressed the court Wednesday morning.
Each recounted the mundane moments that would inevitably become their last with Hser Ner Moo.
Pearlly Wa had to go to the doctor. She said little to her child before leaving her in the care of family. To this day, she asks herself what she could have done differently to prevent her daughter's demise.
"Everybody dies someday, one way or another, but the way my daughter died was very unfair," Wa said through an interpreter. "We have been waiting for a long time, many, many years to get this resettlement. And after I came here, I've been waiting to find out who did this evil to my little girl. This is something I really hate: waiting, waiting, waiting and crying."
Cartoon Wah said the morning his daughter disappeared was the same as every other: Hser Ner Moo was energetically reminding him not to be late for work and singing as she scurried around the house.
"Beause of this loss, I feel like I've lost everything. I suffer too much," Wah said through an interpreter. "Now I can't sing anymore because it reminds me of her. Instead of singing, I cry."
Kyi Kyi Po, Hser Ner Moo's oldest brother, asked the judge if Met could be put to death for what he did to his sister.
Atherton told him that although the U.S. does still carry out death sentences, it was not an option in this case. He returned to his seat in silence, glaring angrily at the defendant.
Prosecutors decided to forego seeking the death penalty last year, in an effort to speed up the years-stalled proceedings.
Sunday Moo, Hser Ner Moo's other brother, stood up to show the judge a tattoo he got last month his sister's name and the date of her death etched in black and red ink on his left forearm.
"My sister used to tell me that when she dies, she'll go to heaven," he said. "I'm not as good as my little sister. ... I can't handle this feeling, this suffering anymore."
He began to weep before wiping his eyes and asking if he could address the judge in English:
"If I die today, I wonder if Hser is alive in heaven?"
"That is a question I cannot answer," Atherton said.
Outside the courtroom, the family told reporters the sentence was fair, and may be the first step toward finding closure.
"I feel much better because I know who did it the day my daughter died," Pearlly Wa said.
Met's family declined to comment as they left the courthouse, his mother wiping tears from her eyes.
Twitter: @Marissa_Jae Esar Met timeline
March 31, 2008
» 1:30 to 2 p.m.: Hser Ner Moo last seen by her family.
» 2:39 p.m.: The latest Esar Met could have left his South Salt Lake apartment to catch a bus to Cottonwood Heights, where he stayed the night at the home of his aunt and uncle.
» 3:30 to 4 p.m.: Esar Met arrives at his aunt and uncle's home.
» 6:30 to 7 p.m.: Hser Ner Moo's father, Cartoon Wah, knocks on the door of Esar Met's apartment; Met's four roommates said they hadn't seen the girl.
» Evening: Hundreds of volunteers scour the area looking for the 7-year-old girl.
April 1, 2008:
» 4 a.m.: Detectives knock on the door of Apartment 472 , get no response.
» 7 p.m.: Hser Ner Moo's body found in Esar Met's basement apartment.
» 10 p.m.: Esar Met arrested at his aunt and uncle's home.
A Missing Peace
Reporter Julia Lyon traveled to Thailand to trace the journeys of Hser Ner Moo and Esar Met from the Mae La refugee camp to Salt Lake City. Her series, reported in collaboration with the International Reporting Project, also explored the challenges their families and other refugees face in America. See the series at http://extras.sltrib.com/thailand.