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Karina Vetrano murder suspect 'squeezed until she was dead,' prosecutor says

Chanel Lewis is being retried on murder and sexual abuse charges.

Chanel Lewis, right, sits with his defense team

Chanel Lewis, right, sits with his defense team during his retrial Monday for allegedly killing Howard Beach jogger Karina Vetrano. Photo Credit: Pool/ULI SEIT

A Queen prosecutor told jurors Monday that the Brooklyn man being retried in the death of Howard Beach jogger Karina Vetrano in 2016 grabbed her by the neck and “squeezed and squeezed until she was dead.”   

During a nearly two-hour opening statement in Queens Supreme Court, Assistant District Attorney Brad Leventhal said the Aug. 2, 2016, strangulation of Vetrano, 30, followed a chance encounter with an angry Chanel Lewis, 22, as she jogged in Spring Creek Park. 

In opening statement in Queens Supreme Court, Assistant District Attorney Brad Leventhal during a nearly two-hourThe Aug. 2, 2016, strangulation of Vetrano, 30, followed a chance encounter with an angry Chanel Lewis, 22, as she jogged in Spring Creek Park, said .

“This was a crime of opportunity, a crime of random, senseless violence,” Leventhal told the six men and six women on the jury.  “This crime was born of misdirected anger, fueled by lust and [desire] for sexual satisfaction."

Lewis is being retried on murder and sexual abuse charges in connection with Vetrano's killing.  The first trial ended in a mistrial after jurors couldn’t agree on a verdict.  The first panel voted 7-5 in favor of conviction, according to persons briefed at the time on jury deliberations.

Vetrano’s parents, Catherine and Philip, are expected to testify Tuesday about the day of their daughter's fateful jog and how the speech pathologist's father discovered her body in the park weeds. The case is before Supreme Court Judge Michael Aloise.

Lewis' defense attorney Jenny Cheung, of the Legal Aid Society, addressed the jurors for less than 20 minutes and reiterated a theme she used in the first trial: Police were in a rush to find a defendant for the widely publicized killing and committed mistakes that led them to Lewis.

NYPD investigators, Cheung said, implicated Lewis by trying to fit a “square peg into a round hole” with their evidence — an argument she made during her first opening statement in November. 

“This case is about how tunnel vision clouds judgement,” Cheung said.

Police took Lewis into custody in February 2017 after the DNA sample he voluntarily submitted matched genetic material found on Vetrano’s neck, fingernails and cell phone, officials said. Lewis also gave investigators two confessions, investigators said after his arrest — one to detectives and another a few hours later to prosecutors.

Lewis, of East New York, was disturbed by what Leventhal described as a trivial incident at his home and left to be by himself with a walk through the park.  It was then, Leventhal said, that Lewis “saw red” as he came across an unsuspecting Vetrano as she jogged, and attacked her. He chased Vetrano, Leventhal told the jury, pummeling and finally choking the life out of her.

“She tried to run for her life from him,” Leventhal said, adding that one of her running shoes was found 130 feet from her body.

In the first trial, the defense suggested Lewis’s confessions were coerced, the crime scene not properly handled, and the DNA evidence ambiguous, or as Cheung said Monday “not open and closed.”  However, in his opening for the second trial, Leventhal addressed those issues. 

The prosecutor told jurors Vetrano’s cell phone was protected by investigators after it was found in the park weeds, her body was guarded, and her hands were bagged to prevent contamination or loss of evidence.  He also said that in the 12 hours before Lewis confessed, he was offered food, water and bathroom breaks.

Leventhal also described how experts and doctors from the Office of the City Medical Examiner would testify, as they did in the first trial, about how the DNA found on Vetrano’s neck and cell phone was a match to Lewis’ sample. He added that the genetic material under Vetrano's fingernails showed a high likelihood of being a mix of her and Lewis’ DNA.

Cheung at one point drew a prosecution objection, sustained by Aloise, when she suggested the Vetrano case was handled differently because the victim's family knew a high-ranking NYPD chief.

The first prosecution witness was NYPD Det. Tim Gentz ,who described finding Vetrano’s cell phone yards from her body. Gentz recalled hearing Philip Vetrano’s cries when he found her body.

“One of the loudest screams,” said Gentz.

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