NEW YORK (AP) — It took nearly a decade after a prostitute's battered body was found under a Times Square budget hotel bed for the case to go to trial. But it took only about two hours for jurors to convict the suspect in a prosecution that became a forum for debate over the validity of bite-mark evidence.
Jurors began deliberating late Tuesday afternoon and soon reached a guilty verdict in the case against Clarence Dean.
Dean, 44, now could face up to life in prison for Kristine Yitref's August 2007 death. It followed an encounter between two people at New York's fringes: he a convicted sex offender new to town, she a onetime design student turned crack-using streetwalker.
Arrested days after Yitref's body was found, Dean already has spent one of the longest pretrial spells in jail of any New York City suspect, partly because of the bite-mark dispute. He declined to attend much of his trial, including closing arguments Tuesday.
His lawyer, Sean Maher, said he was disappointed in the verdict but was hopeful that an appeal would exonerate Dean. The Manhattan district attorney's office had no immediate comment on the verdict.
Prosecutors say Dean brutally killed Yitref, whose garbage-bagged body was found in his hotel room after he checked out.
Dean told police he punched and choked Yitref but denied killing her, saying he blacked out from exertion while defending himself after she and a pimp attacked him and tried to steal his bag.
"Mr. Dean had to fight off two desperate thieves that ambushed him in his hotel room," Maher said in a closing argument Tuesday. "Mr. Dean is innocent."
But Manhattan Assistant District Attorney Robert Ferrari called Dean's claims "utterly unworthy of belief."
"He wasn't acting in self-defense when he killed Kristine Yitref. He was acting in a blind rage" that broke a dozen of her ribs, shattered her breastbone and fractured her skull, Ferrari said in his summation.
Yitref, 33, left her hometown of Yakima, Washington, in 1994 and landed in New York. She enrolled in design school but spiraled into drug use and a rough life. She'd lost part of a finger about three months before her death, according to a friend who testified Tuesday; it's not clear what befell the finger.
"I just think the big city swallowed her up," Yitref's aunt, Kristine Hamilton, said earlier this year.
Dean, 44, came to New York a few weeks before Yitref's death. He was wanted on charges of stealing a woman's car and draining her bank account in Tennessee and failing to comply with a sex offender registry law in Alabama. He had been required to register because of a lewd act involving a child in Palm Beach County, Florida.
In New York, Dean got a job busing glasses and doing other tasks at a club. Yitref propositioned him as he walked to and from work, Maher said.
After they went to his hotel room for a $40 tryst, Yitref's pimp burst in, joined Yitref in attacking him and then fled, Dean told police. He cleaned up and checked out the next day in a panic, his lawyer said.
For years, prosecutors planned to include a controversial piece of evidence: a forensic comparison between Dean's teeth and a bite mark found on Yitref's body.
Dean's defense contested the comparison as junk science. Nationwide, at least 24 men have been exonerated since 2000 after facing murder or rape charges or convictions based on bite marks.
A judge ruled in 2013 that the bite mark evidence could be used in Dean's case. But this past January, prosecutors said they no longer needed it to prove their case.
Jurors did hear about DNA found on the bite mark. Medical examiners determined the small DNA sample matched Yitref and an unidentified second person. The defense noted it didn't match Dean; the prosecution argued he simply didn't leave enough of his DNA behind.
This story has been corrected to show that deliberations began late Tuesday afternoon, rather than were set to begin Wednesday.