Defense Objects to DNA Analysis
By David Brand
Family members cradled Cathie Vetrano as an expert from the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner reviewed autopsy photos of the extensive bruising, lacerations and other injuries that covered her daughter Karina’s body.
Later, she fanned herself in the sweltering third-floor courtroom while a prosecution expert linked the DNA found on Karina’s neck, nails and cellphone to that of Chanel Lewis, the man accused of murdering her near her Howard Beach home in August 2016.
Despite the disturbing photos, the defense managed to sew some doubt about the narrative of the alleged attack by Lewis. Justice Michael Aloise sustained an objection from prosecutor Brad Leventhal when the defense team suggested that Vetrano’s injuries could have been caused by “multiple assailants.”
OCME Department of Forensic Biology Assistant Director Linda Razzano, the prosecution’s final witness, described the most compelling evidence against Lewis: the astronomically long odds that the DNA found on Vetrano’s neck and cell phone matched anyone other than Lewis. The defense disputes that DNA profile and the manner by which examiners compiled the evidence.
Razzano said analysts used the DNA samples to build a profile of “‘Male Donor A’ that is expected to be found in one in greater than 6.8 trillion people.” Leventhal pointed at Lewis and said that he was that one person.
DNA found under two of Vetrano’s fingernails was a less certain match, Razzano said
The DNA found under one nail is “approximately 376 billion times” more likely to come from Lewis than any other “unknown, unrelated” person, she said. The DNA found under the other nail is “approximately 29.2 billion times” more likely to come from Lewis than someone else, she said..
After opening statements last week, defense attorney Jenny Cheung applied for a mistrial on the grounds that such numbers were exaggerated and impossible to conclude. Cheung said that not enough DNA was collected from other people who came in contact with Vetrano’s body and phone at the crime scene.
On Wednesday, she repeatedly objected to Razzano’s testimony, noting that Razzano was not involved in the DNA analysis. The woman who oversaw the analysis and who previously testified during pre-trial hearings is no longer employed by OCME. Aloise overruled each objection and court adjourned during Cheung’s cross examination.
The photographs exhibited in court earlier in the day were taken by OCME Senior Medical Examiner Dr. Margaret Prial about 12 hours after Vetrano was murdered. Prial conducted the autopsy and described the injuries — which included a “large, extensive abrasion” on Vetrano’s right buttock, a laceration to her vagina, bruising around her neck and burst blood vessels dotting her face — in chilling detail. Before Prial testified, Aloise warned the jurors about the images.
“Very, very graphic photographs are going to be displayed and it’s not to get a rise out of you in any way, shape or form,” Aloise told jurors. “They’re being introduced to corroborate and to illustrate the testimony.”
Regardless of the warning, the photos provoked visceral reactions among several jurors and alternates. Various jurors looked away from the photos before them while others shifted in their seats with concerned faces. An alternate rubbed her face and seemed to cry as Prial described the injuries.
Lewis sat stoic in a three-piece suit, the tags still stitched to the left sleeve of the gray jacket he has worn throughout the trial.
In a taped confession, Lewis told detectives that Vetrano died from drowning in a puddle, but Prial had a different conclusion.
“Her cause of death was strangulation,” Prial said. Earlier in her testimony she indicated that Vetrano’s “hair was damp.”
A few injuries suggested that Vetrano fought fiercely against her attacker or attackers.
Prial said Vetrano’s neck was marked with linear scratches, a sign that she may have scratched herself with her own nails while trying to pry the attacker’s hands off.
“In her left hand she had some leaves and one long piece of grass,” Prial added.
Prial described Vetrano as 4’11” and weighing 112 pounds with her sports bra pulled down to reveal her breasts and her “underpants and shorts rolled around her left thigh” and pulled off her right leg.
She also said Vetrano had two chipped front teeth.
Prosecutors say Lewis punched Vetrano in the face repeatedly, injuring his hand in the process. During a taped confession the morning after his arrest, Lewis said Vetrano could not scream because she had broken teeth.
That injury was reported early in the investigation and available to anyone who read news reports about the murder, as prosecutors say Lewis did.
During cross examination by defense attorney Julia Burke, Prial acknowledged that the teeth could have been chipped from a fall or from being struck by an object.
Prial also described enlarged photos of Vetrano’s vagina and anus, which both featured bruising inside and out “consistent with an object being inserted,” though she could not, based on the evidence, say precisely when that would have occurred other than “at or around the time of death.”
Lewis is charged with sexual abuse, but prosecutors have not introduced any evidence to indicate that he raped or molested Vetrano. They have not mentioned any DNA found in or around Vetrano’s vagina or anus. Lewis repeatedly denied sexually assaulting her in his confessions.
Prosecutors say they will rest their case Thursday. The defense team plans to call a Legal Aid investigator working with their team as well as a possible second witness. They did not rule out Lewis testifying or calling a false confession expert.
Prosecutors and defense attorneys agreed to waive a fingerprint expert’s appearance in court in favor of written testimony. In that testimony, the expert said a partial fingerprint found on Vetrano’s cell phone was “of no value” because it was insufficient to attribute to anyone.