By Christina Carrega
Two innocent Queens residents, both killed while enjoying life. Four families in grief as two young men face nearly a lifetime behind bars after confessing to murder.
And in both cases, which are taking place in adjacent courtrooms, the defendants gave their confession to the same NYPD officer: Det. Barry Brown from Queens Homicide South. The defense teams in both cases have called those confessions into question.
Chanel Lewis, then 20, was indicted for killing 30-year-old Karina Vetrano as she jogged alone in an unkempt trail behind her Howard Beach home in August 2016.
Prakash Churaman, then 15, is accused of masterminding a home invasion on Dec. 5, 2014 with two others that left his close friend's brother, 21-year-old Taquane Clark, dead, killed in his bedroom while playing video games. Elijah Gough, 31, was sentenced to 65 years to life in prison in February while Jonathan Wells — identified by prosecutors as “Trouble” — was not charged.
Both Churaman and Lewis were not immediately arrested after the horrific crimes were reported to the Queens Homicide Squad. But upon arrest, both met with Brown.
As Churaman's attorney Ron Kuby gave his closing arguments on Wednesday morning, he described his client's three-hour-long interrogation as manipulation techniques designed to construct an alleged confession.
“Another technique Detective Brown used, all while in a small room: he started cursing at a child, he said f--k or f--king 39 times; he accused him of lying 15 times; told him over and over 10 times that he was going to prison,” Kuby said.
Kuby also pointed out that Brown and his partner in the 113th Precinct interview room 10 times told Churaman to separate himself from the murder and admit to the robbery.
“By admitting that one little thing is confessing to felony murder, the detectives know that — ‘gotcha for murder!’ But a 15-year-old doesn't know that,” said Kuby.
Kuby said Churaman's mother, who sat in the room during the confession, became a pawn for the detectives.
“Mrs. Churaman thought they needed Prakash to help the police catch Elijah Gough and Jonathan Wells,” Kuby said. “She was deputized to help them get a confession.”
In the video, Churaman's mother asked the detectives how long they'll keep him in custody.
“You'll keep him until he goes to court?” Kuby read from the video's transcript to the jurors with a snarky chuckle.
Churaman gave various narratives to detectives, some placing him as another victim of the crime or and others placing him at alternate locations.
“The defendant gave inconsistent stories, a tell-tale sign of lying for three and-a-half hours. Even his mom is trying to reconcile what he is saying because it doesn’t make sense,” said Assistant District Attorney Andrea Medina in her closing statement.
Churaman, now 19, was the prime suspect after Clark's 74-year-old grandmother, who was held hostage with a silver pistol to her nose during the botched robbery, recognized his voice.
Medina strongly contested the defense's allegations that the police were “feeding” Churaman information. “He's coming up with it all on his own...He’s lying because he knows he’s guilty. He doesn’t want to get in trouble because he’s selfish and arrogant,” Medina said.
There is no forensic evidence, fingerprints, DNA, video or murder weapon that place Churaman inside the South Jamaica home. Jurors began deliberating on the charges on Wednesday afternoon and, if convicted, Churaman faces up to 15 years to life in prison as a juvenile offender.
Churaman’s defense team was not allowed to call a false confession expert to testify. Lewis’ attorneys did not disclose whether they plan to call one.
In a videotaped statement the morning after his arrest in February 2017, Lewis told Brown and another detective he murdered Vetrano. In another taped interview later that morning, Lewis told Brown and two assistant district attorneys that he killed Vetrano, though the two confession had several differences
At the end of his recorded conversation with the prosecutors and Brown, Lewis referenced something he and Brown discussed just prior to meeting with the the prosecutors.
Eventually, Lewis recalled the terms he said they had discussed: “restitution or a program.”
“You’re the attorney, right?” he asked the prosecutors moments later.
Lewis’ case continues on Thursday.