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Police: Nuclear DNA led to suspect in Karina Vetrano killing

Chanel Lewis is arraigned in Queens Criminal Court

Chanel Lewis is arraigned in Queens Criminal Court on Sunday, Feb. 5, 2017. Lewis was charged with murder in the strangulation death of Karina Vetrano, 30, as she jogged on a park trail near her Howard Beach home on Aug. 2, 2016. Credit: Charles Eckert/Pool

DNA recovered from the body of slain Howard Beach jogger Karina Vetrano was the best kind of genetic evidence for investigators to use to find her suspected killer, said a law enforcement official familiar with the case.

Crime scene detectives found “nuclear” DNA on Vetrano when her body was discovered the night of Aug. 2 in the weeds of Spring Creek Park in Queens, the official said.

After arresting Chanel R. Lewis, 20, for Vetrano’s killing, NYPD chief of detectives Robert Boyce told reporters that Lewis voluntarily gave investigators a sample of his DNA, which matched that found on the jogger’s body.

Also known as “autosomal” DNA, an individual inherits this unique nuclear material from both parents, experts said in interviews Wednesday.

“It is unique among individuals, except in the case of identical twins,” said a DNA expert who didn’t want to be identified.

Because it is unique, nuclear material is considered the gold standard for making genetic matches in criminal cases.

“When you make an association you are saying no one has ever been born with that profile,” said another expert who also didn’t want to be named.

Lewis, an unemployed man living on Essex Street in the East New York section of Brooklyn, is being held in protective custody in the Manhattan House of Detention. He now faces a charge of second-degree murder in the strangulation death of Vetrano, who was killed while she was taking her usual jog through the park.

Queens District Attorney Richard Brown has said Lewis could face other charges, such as sexual assault, when the case is presented to the grand jury.

Vetrano, who scratched her assailant during the attack, had DNA material under her fingernails. Lewis told police he decided on an impulse to go after the diminutive 30-year-old Vetrano because he was having trouble at home, said the law enforcement official.

Lewis is represented by the Legal Aid Society of New York, which in a statement asked the public to withhold judgment.

“We have a full defense team working on this case, including our DNA unit dedicated to scrutinizing the evidence collected by local authorities,” said Tina Luongo, a top Legal Aid official, in the statement.

“We caution everyone — including the media — not to rush to immediate judgment. As our judicial system affords, Mr. Lewis is entitled to fairness and due process,” Luongo said.

Police got their big break last week when they located Lewis through some quality-of-life summonses and a stop made in May by some beat cops looking into a report of a suspicious person. The DNA evidence convinced police they had the right suspect.

DNA science has been a crucial part of the Vetrano case and sparked a push by her family to have New York State officials approve the use of familial DNA testing to locate unidentified suspects. Vetrano’s parents Philip and Catherine are expected to testify Friday at a hearing on the subject.

On Monday, the New York State Senate approved a familial DNA bill introduced by Sen. Phil Boyle (R-Bay Shore) to authorize its use in the state.

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