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Insanity defense dropped in Karina Vetrano murder case, officials say

Lawyers for Chanel Lewis, seen here Feb. 5,

Lawyers for Chanel Lewis, seen here Feb. 5, 2017, say they will not use an insanity defense in the trial of the Brooklyn man charged in the slaying of Howard Beach jogger Karina Vetrano. Photo Credit: James Carbone

Lawyers for the suspected killer of Howard Beach jogger Karina Vetrano said Thursday they wouldn’t be attempting to use a psychological defense in his murder case, according to officials.

At a hearing before Queens State Supreme Court Judge Gregory Lasak, Legal Aid Society attorneys for Chanel Lewis surprised some court onlookers, including the Vetrano family, when they admitted that the particular line of mental defense — popularly known as the insanity defense — wouldn’t be pursued.

Lewis, now 21, was arrested earlier this year in the Aug. 2, 2016, slaying of Vetrano, whose body was found in the weeds of Spring Creek Park, near her home. An avid jogger, Vetrano, 30, had gone to the park for a training run. After she didn’t return, her father, Philip, and police searched the park and found her body. Police said she had been strangled and sexually assaulted.

When he was arrested, Lewis, who lives in East New York, Brooklyn, told NYPD detectives he “just lost it” when he confronted a jogging Vetrano in the park. DNA found on Vetrano matched that of Lewis, police said.

“I never really meant to hurt her, it just happened. I fought with her for about five minutes. . . . I got madder and madder and I strangled her,” Lewis told police when he was questioned, according to court records. Lewis faces first-degree murder, second-degree murder, aggravated sexual abuse and other charges.

Over the summer, the defense said it was having psychological experts evaluate Lewis as a prelude to presenting an insanity defense. After expert reports weren’t forthcoming last month, Lasak prodded the defense to try to have the examinations done so prosecutors could have their experts examine Lewis.

The defense decided Tuesday to drop the psychological avenue, according to a spokesman for Queens District Attorney Richard Brown. By removing the psychological defense, lawyers for Lewis have indicated they will now attack the prosecution’s case by seeking to have some evidence, such as the confession and the DNA match, thrown out. Lasak set Nov. 20 as a date for pretrial hearings.

If the prosecution’s evidence survives the motions, the case will either go to trial or enter plea negotiations.

Outside court, Philip Vetrano told Newsday that he thought the decision to not pursue the psychological defense made it “a good day” for the case. “This levels the playing field; it is just guilt or innocence,” he aid.

A spokeswoman for the Legal Aid Society didn’t return telephone calls for comment.

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