By David Brand
The 12 jurors deciding the fate of Chanel Lewis, the man accused of killing jogger Karina Vetrano, got a small peak into Lewis’ internet history during the sixth day of his high-profile murder retrial.
They also viewed four cached photo files found on Lewis’ phone that prosecutor’s say bolster their case — the defense says it’s more complicated than that.
NYPD Computer Crime Scene investigator Josue Rivera took the stand to testify about web history and cached data — what Rivera called a “small copy” of an original photo or file — that he recovered from Lewis’ phone and that prosecutors say indicates that Lewis actively searched for information about the August 2016 murder of Vetrano near her Howard Beach home.
The data included four photo thumbnails and a list of 137 “relevant” internet page views compiled by Assistant District Attorney Brad Leventhal.
One of the thumbnails depicted a portion of a dark-skinned hand with a cut near the thumb joint — medical records introduced into evidence during the first trial show that Lewis received treatment for a hand wound the night of Vetrano’s murder. Another photo thumbnail showed NYPD officers standing in Spring Creek Park, where Vetrano’s bruised body was discovered on Aug. 2, 2016. There were also two identical photos of Vetrano that are commonly included in news coverage related to her murder.
None of the photos were stored on Lewis’s cellphone camera roll. Instead, Rivera testified that he “extracted” the thumbnails using investigative software called Cellebrite that can access data fragments from phones. The limited memory capacity on Lewis’ ZTE phone meant that Rivera could only access data between November 2016 and Lewis’ arrest on Feb. 4, 2017.
The cached data included no specific context, like date or time, for the photo thumbnails due to the limited capacity of the phone, Rivera said. The files indicate only that “at one point, the original of the photo resided on this device.”
Leventhal also presented into evidence a list of 137 websites that were contained in Lewis’ cellphone web history. The web pages included Google searches like “What is DNA?,” a New York Times article titled “The Price of a Second Chance” and the Wikipedia page for the “Sacrament of Penance.”
The pageviews also included a Google search for “What does a prosecutor do?” and nearly every one of the amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
In several instances, the web pages were viewed in quick succession, based on time-stamped information contained in the list.
For example, Lewis’ Feb. 4, 2017, web history included a Google search for “What is prosecution” at 7:42 a.m., a Southern Poverty Law Center article titled “Are their limits to prosecutorial discretion” at 7:52 a.m., a search for the term “prosecutorial discretion” at 7:57 a.m., the Wikipedia page for “discretion” at 7:59 a.m. and the Wikipedia page for “prosecutorial discretion” at 7:59 a.m.
Lewis also viewed local news coverage about the initiative to use familial DNA testing to identify crime suspects, the prosecution said. The six-month Vetrano murder investigation galvanized efforts to pass legislation related to familial DNA searches.
The defense team contends that the way the phone user arrived at certain websites or accumulated certain photo files was more complex than a simple search, however.
During cross examination, defense attorney Julia Burke pointed out that the way the person using the phone arrived at the websites did not mean someone actively searched for the information.
“Based on your analysis … you can’t testify that the name Karina Vetrano was ever typed into this device,” Burke said.
“That is correct,” Rivera responded.”
Burke presented a topical hypothetical situation to describe how the photo thumbnails of Vetrano may have been cached on Lewis’ phone.
“If I go to Google and look up March Madness, there may be an article on ESPN.com that has a photo of Zion Williamson,” she said, referring to Duke University’s star forward. She asked if that photo of Williamson would be “saved to [her] phone as cached data.”
Rivera said that it would.
Burke next asked if photos from linked articles included on the sidebar of the website would also appear in her saved data, such as a photo of Yankees slugger Aaron Judge.
“Correct,” Rivera said.
As for the manner in which Lewis arrived at specific webpages, such as the articles about familial DNA or prosecutorial discretion, Burke suggested that they could have been linked from other pages that someone using Lewis’ phone clicked on, like Wikipedia or the general “crime” tag on the Daily News website.
“You couldn’t detect what search terms were used to get to that page?” she asked. “You cannot tell from the data how the user got to that website?”
Rivera answered yes to both questions.
During cross examination, Rivera also said that he “wouldn’t guess to a number but there was extremely a lot” of website pageviews in the phone’s history that were not included in the list.