Prosecutors Use Phone Data, Call Logs To Build Case — But Defense Pushes Back

By Christina Carrega and David Brand

Prosecutors used data gleaned from Chanel Lewis’ cellphone to portray Lewis as fascinated with the Karina Vetrano murder and T-Mobile cell tower records to place Lewis in the vicinity of the murder scene at the time of the crime during the fifth day of the trial Tuesday. The defense team pushed back, engaging in their most assertive cross-examination of the trial to poke holes in the tech-based evidence.

The defense also seemed to seize on additional evidence recovered near the scene, including a used condom and an elaborate “homeless encampment” about a mile and a half from where Vetrano’s body was discovered.

As Vetrano’s parents, both dressed in black, looked on, Assistant District Attorneys Brad Leventhal and Michael Curtis called four witnesses — two cops and two T-Mobile employees to testify. Lewis sat with his hands folded on the table for much of the day, his hair, nearly clean shaven when trial began last week, starting to grow in to a close crop.

The prosecution’s first witness, NYPD Detective Josue Rivera, said he was instructed by Queens prosecutors to search through a black ZTE smartphone that was taken from Lewis’ bedroom when police executed a search warrant the day after Lewis’ arrest. Rivera was tasked with finding any data and photos “related to” Karina Vetrano's murder.

Rivera said that he recovered four photographs that were either taken by the user or automatically downloaded from a web page to the phone. The investigator also identified 137 links from the phone's web history that “related to the case,” Leventhal said.

The phone was recovered from Lewis’ bedroom, according to trial testimony.

Vetrano, 30, was found dead by her father in the weeds of a secluded trail behind their Howard Beach home in August 2016.

The report Rivera created for the ongoing trial in Queens Supreme Court encompasses phone data from November 2016 until Lewis was arrested on Feb. 4, 2017.

Karina Vetrano’s father Phil Vetrano walks down the hall in Queens Criminal Court Tuesday. //  Eagle  photo by Christina Carrega

Karina Vetrano’s father Phil Vetrano walks down the hall in Queens Criminal Court Tuesday. // Eagle photo by Christina Carrega

Rivera's report included that the user searched on for “what an arraignment is?” The user also searched on Google for “prosecutorial discretion,” “DNA swab,” “The Bill of Rights,” “sacrament of penance” and went to a link on titled “what is a grand jury?”

The user also read, on multiple occasions, an article from The New York Times about Vetrano's father's hopes that familial DNA could solve his daughter's murder.

During cross-examination, Legal Aid defense attorney Julia Burke clarified for the jurors that it was impossible to know the exact words used in a search to arrive at those websites.

“You can't testify that Karina Vetrano's name was searched, correct?” Burke asked Rivera, who took a pregnant pause to review his notes.

“That is correct,” Rivera replied.

Burke also said the term “prosecutorial discretion” was actually included on a Southern Poverty Law Center article.

She said Lewis searched “What is prosecution.”

Four photographs were also shown to the jurors, including one of an injured hand. On Friday, prosecutors introduced medical records that indicate Lewis received treatment for a hand injury in the days after Vetrano’s murder. It remains unclear whose hand was captured in the since-deleted photo or who took the photo, according to trial testimony.

NYPD Det. Carlos Pantoja, the second witness to testify took aerial photos of the scene and participated in evidence sweeps of the area. He testified that he recovered a used condom and two condom wrappers and visited a “homeless encampment” he saw from the sky.

The homeless encampment was reported early on in the investigation as police searched for a suspect. Pantoja said the site included a blue tarp used as a tent, a “lounge chair,” coolers, beer cans and an Arizona fruit cocktail can. He recovered the cans and vouchered them as evidence, he said.

In February, Pantoja executed the search warrant at Lewis’ East New York home and recovered several hoodies, sweatpants and two cell phones, including the ZTE.

It was that cellphone that Leventhal said put Lewis near the scene of the crime based on phone calls made just after 5 p.m.

Leventhal called two T-Mobile employees to testify that Lewis’ phone “pinged” a cell tower at Loring Avenue in Brooklyn followed by another on Cross Bay Boulevard, suggesting that he moved in the direction of the murder.

Lewis made three phone calls at 5:06 p.m., 5:07 p.m. and 5:09 p.m.. Each call pinged a tower on Cross Bay Boulevard.

He did not make another call until 8:38 p.m. During that time there was no way to determine his phone activity or relative location.

“The [tower] that is received is the strongest [and] most of the time that means the closest,” T-Mobile Senior Radio Frequency Engineer Dan Carciunoiu said when questioned by Leventhal about the tower pings, but “many factors” can make phones receive signals from towers further away, he said.

During cross examination, Burke asked him to elaborate.

“The data [the phone company receives] gives a general location, it’s not a GPS,” Burke said. “A phone could hit off a tower it’s not closest to.”

Carcinunoiu said buildings, weather and traffic could all divert the signal to more distant towers.

“Traffic could dictate which tower it bounced off,” he said.  

During a break in the trial, the defense team told Judge Michael Aloise that they were concerned about the media’s access to the confession tapes. The Eagle was the first publication to publish the tapes and they have since been widely shared online and in television news reports.

At the end of the day, Aloise again instructed jurors not to read or watch anything related to the trial.

“We’re coming to the end of this and you guys are doing a great job,” he said.