Karina Vetrano murder: Opening statements wrapped up in retrial

HOWARD BEACH, Queens (WABC) -- Opening statements wrapped up Monday in the retrial of a man charged with murdering Karina Vetrano while she was out for a jog in Queens.

The jury in the retrial of Chanel Lewis was seated last week.

Lewis, 22, is accused of sexually abusing and strangling 30-year-old Vetrano near her Howard Beach home in 2016.

His first trial ended in November with a hung jury.

"A young woman full of life. Barely 30 years old and her life was stolen from her by the man who sits in this courtroom at that table over here," said assistant Queens DA Brad Leventhal.

In a riveting, two hour opening statement, Leventhal painted a vivid and horrifying portrait of the crime, describing how Vetrano left her home in Howard Beach, and how she was attacked and murdered in Spring Creek Park.

"He squeezed and he squeezed and he squeezed," said Leventhal. "He choked her until she couldn't resist anymore. He choked her until she couldn't struggle anymore. He choked her until she couldn't breathe anymore. He choked her until she died, alone, scared."

But the defense sought to rekindle the same doubts that led to last year's mistrial.

"This awful crime was not committed by that young man," said defense attorney Jen Cheung. "Chanel did not murder Karina. He did not sexually assault her either. Ladies and gentlemen, you won't hear evidence linking Chanel to a sexual assault. You won't see Chanel's blood or body fluid, shoeprints or hair at the crime scene. You won't see his fingerprints at the crime scene either."

Despite DNA evidence and an on-camera confession, jurors in the first trial found themselves deadlocked with real concerns about how police conducted their investigation.

Five of 12 jurors felt that prosecutors didn't make the case after the defense argued that the videotaped confession was coerced and raised questions about how police collected DNA evidence.

"The very evidence that the government thinks proves their case actually leaves a host of reasonable doubts," said Cheung.

But prosecutors said DNA evidence from underneath Vetrano's fingernails, on her neck, and on her cell phone matched that of Lewis.

Unlike in the first trial, Vetrano's mother is reportedly among those expected to testify against Lewis to offer an emotional plea for justice.
The Legal Aid Society stresses that Lewis "is presumed innocent" and that jurors must scrutinize the accuracy and reliability of statements police say they obtained from the defendant and the reliability of DNA evidence.

They also note that prosecutors have a "burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt."

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