By David Brand
On the seventh day, the prosecution rested — confident that DNA samples, videotaped confessions, hand injury medical records and Cross Bay Boulevard cell phone tower pings would be enough evidence to convince jurors to convict Chanel Lewis for the gruesome murder and sexual assault of Karina Vetrano.
Assistant District Attorneys Brad Leventhal and Michael Curtis also decided to drop nine of the charges on the 13-count indictment, but will continue to seek first-degree murder, aggravated sexual abuse charges — on which the first-degree murder charge is predicated — and second-degree murder.
During the cross-examination of Linda Razzano, assistant director in the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner’s (OCME) Department of Forensic Biology, defense attorney Jenny Cheung cast doubt on the notion that trace bits of Lewis’ DNA could only appear on Vetrano’s neck, fingernails and cell phone through direct contact.
Cheung used a basketball metaphor to illustrate her point.
"Steph Curry passes to Kevin Durant, who shoots, makes a three-pointer,” Cheung asked. “[Durant] goes to get his water bottle. It's possible for Steph Curry to get DNA on that bottle?"
Razzano said the exchange of DNA was indeed possible.
Such exchanges have occurred before — and not far from Steph Curry’s Bay Area home.
In 2014, attorneys demonstrated that DNA from a homeless San Jose man found on the body of Silicon Valley millionaire who was murdered inside his home was accidentally introduced by a paramedic who treated the murder victim after encountering the homeless man. The case was the first time that defense attorneys used DNA contamination to acquit a defendant charged with murder.
Cheung also questioned Razzano on whether DNA analysis conducted by other analysts in the OCME lab could identify on what part of the fingernails the DNA appeared. Razzano acknowledged that the DNA may have been on top of the nails.
The defense team has suggested that Vetrano may have encountered Lewis’ DNA somewhere else, such as inside Gino’s Pizzeria on Cross Bay Boulevard, where Karina’s father said he and his daughter went to get pizza before her run. The defense has also raised the possibility that the DNA was accidentally transported to the body by one of the many police officers and first-responders who visited the crime scene.
Cheung also noted that Lewis’ DNA was not found on Karina’s wrists, ankles, hands, a piece of hose recovered near the scene, tarp used to cover Vetrano’s body or bags of vegetation from the scene.
The city’s medical examiner determined that Karina’s cause of the death was strangulation, but not “manual,” as the defense team pointed out.
Assistant District Attorney Brad Leventhal kept his re-direct questioning short, asking Razzano to repeat the extremely long odds that the DNA samples could match anyone other than Lewis, which she had described the day before.
The DNA profile that analysts built is “expected to be found in one in greater than 6.8 trillion people,” she 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.
After resting their case, prosecutors succeeded in blocking the defense team from building their own case, which was based on a complete lack of surveillance footage placing Lewis in the vicinity of the crime.
Though home surveillance cameras show Karina running into the park, thousands of video clips accumulated from cameras along the Belt Parkway, Howard Beach homes and area businesses fail to capture Lewis in the area.
With jurors outside the courtroom, Assistant District Attorneys Brad Leventhal and Michael Curtis argued to preclude testimony from a Verizon employee, who was working on a telephone pole near the crime scene during the time of the murder. According to the defense, the worker said he saw three people enter and exit the park — none of whom were Lewis.
Judge Michael Aloise questioned why that was relevant to the trial.
“You want to put a witness on the stand to say ‘I saw one person leave and two people enter?’ For what purpose,” Aloise asked defense attorney Robert Moeller.
“The casting of this place [has been] as desolated, deserted, marshy,” Moeller said. “This is a place people do [visit] and recreate.”
Leventhal argued that the Verizon employee’s testimony had “no relevance whatsoever.”
“The worker was there for two hours during the time that the crime occurred and he did not see Mr. Lewis enter or leave the place at this time,” Moeller said.
Leventhal said that he would have to call three “rebuttal witnesses” to counter that Verizon employee’s testimony. In the interest of speeding up the trial, Judge Michael Aloise precluded that witness.
The defense team called their lone remaining witness, investigator Jennifer Burke, to testify.
Burke — no relation to defense attorney Julia Burke — said she had visited the area of the crime about ten times and counted “two dozen” surveillance cameras on nearby Howard Beach homes.
Leventhal immediately objected and Aloise sustained the objection.
Burke also tried to explain that she had visited a cell phone tower located at 486 Stanley Ave. in Brooklyn, near Linden Park. Lewis’ cell phone pinged that tower around 8 p.m. the night of the murder. He had told the defense team he injured his hand while jogging at Linden Park in East New York off Linden Boulevard, which has a running track.
Leventhal again objected and Aloise sustained.
Leventhal then accused the defense team of failing to turn over Rosario material — a few handwritten notes that Jennifer Burke had referenced to describe the “rugged terrain” of the trail. After Burke handed the small notes to Leventhal, the defense rested.
The trial will resume with closing statements on Monday morning.