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A Burmese refugee accused of killing 7-year-old Hser Ner Moo two years ago angrily denied his guilt in court on Friday.
"I was forced by the authorities here to say that I did it, but I didn't kill," said Esar Met, according to an interpreter for the girl's family, who translated the statement for The Tribune .
Hser Ner Moo's family, who traveled from Iowa for Friday's hearing, had been told Met would plead guilty and be sentenced, the interpreter said.
But when Met's attorney told the judge they had reached a resolution in the case, Met, whose legs and hands had been shaking, shook his head to the contrary. Met then spoke passionately in Burmese, after which his attorneys requested a break so they could confer with Met.
About an hour later, 3rd District Court Judge Judith Atherton returned to the bench and defense attorney Michael Peterson said, "There are inquiries we need to make and then report back."
A status hearing was set for July 9.
Following Met's courtroom outburst, Hser Ner Moo's parents, Pearlly Wa and Cartoon Wah, wiped away tears. They moved to Marshalltown, Iowa, last fall, overwhelmed with frustration about the stalled case.
Met, believed to be 23 years old, is charged with aggravated murder and child kidnapping for allegedly beating, sexually assaulting and strangling the girl at his South Salt Lake City apartment on March 31, 2008.
"It's a strange feeling when my daughter that he killed, that he can actually have the nerve to say he did not kill her," the victim's father, Cartoon Wah, said through an interpreter after the hearing.
Hser Ner Moo was in second grade when she died.
"What I feel deep down in my heart, this was my only daughter," the father said. "I asked of her from God. How am I going to get her back?"
Esar Met and Hser Ner Moo lived in separate parts of the same refugee camp for Burmese refugees in Thailand before immigrating to the United States, where both lived at the South Parc Townhomes, 2250 S. 500 East.
Esar Met allegedly killed the girl inside his basement apartment, where her body was found a day after her disappearance had sparked a massive search of the neighborhood.
An autopsy determined she died of blunt force trauma to her head, neck and torso. Some injuries were consistent with strangulation or suffocation, and physicians also found evidence of sexual assault.
Hser Ner Moo was last seen alive at about 2 p.m. on March 31, 2008, when she left her family's apartment and was seen by a neighbor walking south, in the direction of apartment No. 472, where Met was living, according to the charging documents. Police have said the girl was dead within an hour of leaving home.
Met was located by police about 10 p.m. the next day at his aunt's Cottonwood Heights home.
According to a probable cause statement filed with the jail, Met admitted killing Hser Ner Moo while "attempting to confine the victim to the residence by force." Prosecutors have said they have no information about whether the girl was lured into the apartment, or whether the crime was planned or opportunistic.
The case bogged down in December 2008, when the defense raised questions about Met's mental competency. That was also the last time Met had appeared in court until Friday.
According to a March 2009 court docket entry, the defense intended to ask the judge to appoint mental evaluators, but nothing was ever filed with the court.
The defense has also raised questions about Met's age, noting they have found no birth records for him in either Burma or Thailand. According to what Met has told jailers, he is now 23. However his mother, Ra He Mar, has said her son is older.
Hser Ner Moo's mother, Pearlly Wa, was stoic outside the courtroom after the hearing ended.
"Everything works out for the best," she said through an interpreter. "The proceedings have shown that justice will be served."
But some community members who knew Hser Ner Moo remain angry.
"I'm a little bit disgusted," said Juanita Huertero, a friend of the family who attended the hearing. "It seems like he has more rights than the victims."
Met is being held at the Salt Lake County jail in lieu of $2.5 million bail.