Volume 79, Number 9 | August 5 - 11, 2009
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Insanity defense for accused killer of Pace University student

By Duncan Osborne

The defense for Jeromie Cancel, the man accused of killing Pace University student Kevin Pravia inside his W. 15th St. apartment, will argue that he suffered from a “cognitive disorder” and “neuropsychiatric abnormalities” when he strangled the 19-year-old gay man to death on Aug. 30 last year.

In a July 13 letter to State Supreme Court Justice Rena K. Uviller, who is trying the murder case, Cancel’s attorney wrote that the “psychiatric evidence is to be presented in connection with the affirmative defense of lack of criminal responsibility by reason of mental disease or defect and in connection with the affirmative defense of extreme emotional disturbance.”

Cancel, 23, faces one count of felony murder, meaning he allegedly killed Pravia in the course of committing another felony. If the defense is successful, the lack of criminal responsibility could excuse him entirely, though he would likely be held in an institution until he is found to be cured of his condition. If a jury believes the extreme emotional disturbance defense, the charge against Cancel would be reduced to first-degree manslaughter. The maximum sentence for felony murder is 25 years to life in prison, and the maximum for the manslaughter charge is up to 25 years in prison, with the requirement that the offender serve six-sevenths of the sentence before becoming eligible for release.

Cancel’s attorney, Michael Alperstein, wrote that the psychiatric evidence might be used “in connection with any other defense not specified in the statute, including the inability of the defendant to form a specific intent.” Alperstein added, “The defendant is presently undergoing neuropsychological testing in order to more fully assess Mr. Cancel’s condition. He reserves the right to make timely amendment to this notice when further information is obtained.”

Alperstein forwarded three studies to this reporter that were authored by Dr. Dorothy O. Lewis, a professor at Yale University who has studied aggressive or homicidal young offenders. In her research, Lewis has found high rates of often-undiagnosed psychiatric disorders as well as evidence of brain damage and other deficits that may have contributed to criminal behavior.

In hearings, Alperstein has said that his client has a long history of psychiatric problems, including at least one suicide attempt.

“Since he was 10 years old, my client has been in numerous psychiatric institutions,” Alperstein said at a July 7 hearing. Alperstein also noted hospitalizations at the Bellevue Hospital Center in Manhattan, the Brookdale University Hospital and Medical Center in Brooklyn and an unnamed institution in Queens. When he subpoenaed his client’s records from the city Department of Education, Alperstein received 350 pages of documents reflecting his client’s time spent in special-education classes.

In his 10 statements to police, including videotaped and written confessions, Cancel can be perceived as either monstrous or psychologically unbalanced.

He was arrested on Sept. 2, 2008, in Queens for allegedly burglarizing his father’s home. In the course of admitting to that crime, he announced to police that he killed Pravia.

“I see you have no murders in this precinct,” he told a police officer from the 104th Precinct in Ridgewood. “I murdered someone in Manhattan. If you don’t believe me, it’s in the newspaper. The kid’s name is Kevin.”

Cancel and Pravia met in Union Square, where the 19-year-old allegedly bought cocaine from Cancel on the night of the slaying. They then walked to Pravia’s 15th St. apartment, between Seventh and Eighth Aves., to use the drug. When Pravia, who was allegedly drunk at the time, passed out, Cancel began to rob him, the defendant said. He explained the killing by saying, “I was bored, so I decided to go back into the apartment and kill him.”

In his statements to police, Cancel allegedly gave details of the crime that only the killer would know and pointed police to other evidence that supported his confession. These admissions reached a point where Cancel appeared to grow tired of making them. Late in the day on Sept. 2, Cancel said to a detective, “Why do I have to do this? I killed him. I strangled him. I’ve been telling you this all day.”

In his final statement, as he was being taken in front of news crews, Cancel said, “Are those cameras for me? Can you handcuff me in front so I can throw gang signs? I don’t have any remorse. I’d do it again.”

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