Startled cries of "Oh My God!" reverberated in a Queens courtroom Monday as family and friends of slain Howard Beach jogger Karina Vetrano saw crime scene photos of her body, her limbs bent at odd angles and clothing in disarray the night she was found dead in Spring Creek Park, not far from her home.
The collective gasp from her mother, Catherine Vetrano, and her sister, Tana, as well as other relatives seemed to startle even some of jurors in the case of Chanel Lewis, 22, of Brooklyn who is on trial for Vetrano's Aug. 2, 2016 murder. Both women couldn't look as the crime scene photos were shown to the first witnesses in the trial which began Monday in Queens State Supreme Court.
Audience reaction to the photos prompted Judge Michael Aloise to call a brief recess. He told spectators that no matter how disturbing some evidence may be they should take time to collect themselves and guard against any outbursts. Afterward, the audience was quiet, although Catherine Vetrano and her daughter clasped each other and sometimes sobbed softly.
Karina Vetrano, 30, was found strangled after she went for jog. Lewis was arrested six months after her slaying in February 2017.
The first witness for the prosecution was NYPD Det. Thomas Gentz, of a special police unit which, among other things, can get special access from cellphone companies to find missing phones. That night, Vetrano's phone was determined to have been at a stationary location, said Gentz, who recalled using a special device to get a better fix on its location in the park.
Gentz testified to the jury of seven women and five men that he and another detective located Vetrano's phone and then secured the area so that it was not touched by anyone until investigators could bag it as evidence.
It was during Gentz's testimony that Assistant District Attorney Brad Leventhal introduced into evidence the photos of Vetrano's body.
The next witness, Philip Guarnieri, a friend of Vetrano's father also named Philip, testified how he walked with the father into a section of weeds and made the sudden discovery of Karina's body. Philip Vetrano was devastated, said Guarnieri.
"It was like a belt," said Guarnieri of his friend's anguished cries as he found and tried to lift her corpse.
"I knew she was dead," said Guarnieri.
Earlier in the day, Leventhal told jurors in his opening statement that "evidence in this case was overwhelming." In a nearly two-hour opening, Leventhal outlined how he will use DNA evidence from Vetrano's body and her cellphone, as well as two confessions to convict Lewis.
In the 15-minute defense opening, Legal Aid Society Attorney Jenny Cheung raised the specter of reasonable doubt and said DNA evidence wasn't absolute.
"This case is a rush to judgment," Cheung said. "They are trying to put a square peg into a round hole."
Cheung suggested that Lewis' confessions were made while he was stressed out and under psychological duress. She also implored the jurors to listen carefully to the DNA testimony.
The trial is slated to resume Wednesday with the testimony of Philip Vetrano.