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A drug-craving drifter took advantage of a drunken college student to steal from and strangle him while watching a horror movie, a prosecutor said as the man's murder trial opened Thursday.
But Jeromie Cancel's defense lawyer told jurors Thursday they might see the case differently after hearing about Cancel's history of psychological problems, including a series of suicide attempts dating to his childhood.
Cancel, 24, told authorities he'd killed Kevin Pravia out of boredom. But he has pleaded not guilty, and his lawyer has indicated he plans to argue that Cancel's emotional and mental troubles should lessen his responsibility.
Pravia, a Pace University sophomore from the small town of 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 packed him into a cab after a night out, but he apparently didn't go up to his apartment after being dropped off.
Cancel "was prowling the streets ... looking for someone he could steal from so he could get money to buy drugs," assistant district attorney Steven Nuzzi said. And the 19-year-old Pravia "was very drunk, young, slight of build and maybe even a little naive."
Cancel (whose name is pronounced JEHR'-ah-mee kan-SEHL') told police Pravia asked to buy cocaine from him and invited him to his apartment to share the drug. But an autopsy found no trace of any drugs, just alcohol, in Pravia's system, Nuzzi said.
They drank together, and Pravia fell asleep, telling Cancel he could hang out but imploring him not to rob him, Nuzzi said. Cancel snatched up the sleeping student's laptop computer and other electronics, then decided to kill Pravia because he was "bored," according to his statements.
On a video, Cancel calmly tells authorities he strangled Pravia with an electric cord while smoking a cigarette and watching a movie he thought was the horror hit "Saw." It actually was the equally gruesome "Hostel," according to Nuzzi.
Cancel departed, leaving behind DNA evidence and taking Pravia's electronics, which he later sold, prosecutors said.
He was arrested three days later because his father complained that Cancel had stolen some video game equipment from him, police said.
Cancel then 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. But Cancel's account was so detailed that the officer suggested detectives check it out, Officer Sean Hynes said at a hearing last week.
Defense lawyer Michael Alperstein told jurors Thursday that psychological experts would "put what happened here in context." That backdrop that includes suicide attempts as far back as Cancel's grade-school years, a monthlong hospitalization involving the use of restraints and attendance at schools for children with emotional problems, he said.
"By the time Mr. Cancel was 9 years old, he was already deeply emotionally disturbed," Alperstein said. "He was always having these bouts of absolute lack of self-control."
Pravia grew up in a town of about 800 people and went on to a big-city college, where he was an honors student. He had just returned for his sophomore year after a summer of doing yard work for his family's realty business, his mother, Paula, testified Thursday.
The two spoke daily by phone, she said, breaking into tears as Nuzzi showed her a portrait of her eldest child.
"That's my baby," she said.
This program aired on November 5, 2010. The audio for this program is not available.
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