NEW YORK (AP) — A drifter was convicted Thursday of strangling a college student while watching a horror movie, after a chance encounter between the sophomore from small-town Massachusetts and the drug user who would later tell police he killed out of boredom.
Jeromie Cancel and his victim’s family showed no emotion as jurors delivered their verdict, finding the 24-year-old guilty of second-degree murder in Kevin Pravia’s August 2008 death. The defense said it planned to appeal the conviction, which carries a potential life sentence.
Prosecutors said Cancel deliberately targeted the 19-year-old Pravia as part of a robbery, exploiting the Pace University student’s drunkenness after a night out to get invited to his apartment.
“It was a simple intentional murder, through and through,” Assistant District Attorney Steven Nuzzi said Wednesday in closing arguments.
But Cancel’s lawyer said his client suffered from deep psychological problems that sapped his self-control and should lessen his responsibility.
“He was fighting his own demons on the day he was in Kevin Pravia’s apartment,” defense attorney Michael Alperstein said in his closing argument. “There’s no other explanation. If it wasn’t his mental illness that caused him to do this terrible act, what was the reason?”
He urged jurors to consider finding that Cancel acted of extreme emotional disturbance — an established defense, under New York law, that leads to a manslaughter conviction instead of a murder conviction. The difference is reflected in a maximum sentence of 25 years in prison, instead of life.
Cancel smiled as he was led out of the courtroom. The judge encouraged jurors not to discuss the case.
Paula Previa, the victim’s mother, calmly spoke through tears outside court as she thanked prosecutors and detectives for “the great job they all they did.” She had no further comment.
Kevin Pravia, a 19-year-old from Peru, Mass., and the then-homeless Cancel crossed paths in downtown Manhattan around 5 a.m. on Aug. 30, 2008, according to prosecutors and Cancel’s statements to authorities.
Pravia’s friends had helped him into a cab after partying together, but he apparently didn’t go straight up to his apartment after being dropped off. Instead, he apparently invited Cancel to his home.
Cancel told police that Pravia asked to buy cocaine from him and then invited him to share it. But an autopsy found no trace of any drugs in Pravia’s system.
The young men drank together, Pravia fell asleep and Cancel gathered the sleeping student’s laptop computer and other electronics so he could steal them, Cancel told police in a video-recorded statement.
Then, he said, he decided to kill Pravia because he was bored.
He choked Pravia with an electric cord while smoking a cigarette and watching a movie he thought was the horror hit “Saw” before leaving, Cancel told police. The film actually was the equally bloody “Hostel,” according to prosecutors.
He was arrested three days later on a small-scale theft complaint lodged by his own father, police said.
Cancel abruptly confessed to the murder, according to an officer who said he found the story so far-fetched that he didn’t initially believe it.
Cancel had a long history of emotional and psychological troubles, including suicide attempts starting when he was 10, mental health experts testified. He attended schools for children with emotional problems and was hospitalized with physical restraints as a child, said Alperstein, his lawyer.
But District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance said the slaying was cold-blooded.
“Evidence presented at this trial revealed that the defendant took a perverse pride in this crime, and it is my hope that this verdict brings a measure of comfort to the family of the victim,” he said.
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)
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