revisiting a Murder in times square

| 11 Apr 2016 | 10:06

At first, justice looked like it would come swiftly for Kristine Yitref. Police made an arrest just one day after her lifeless body was found by a chambermaid in a Times Square hotel.

More than eight years later, though, the man accused of strangling the 33-year-old still hasn’t been brought to trial. The case finally took a step forward when a judge said he would begin selecting a jury on July 6.

The suspect, a convicted sex offender named Clarence Dean, now ranks among the prisoners with the longest pretrial detentions in New York City’s swollen jails. Lengthy delays in criminal cases are common in the city’s courts, but even by those standards, his case is unusual.

It languished partly because of a long legal fight over the validity of forensic evidence involving a bite mark on the victim’s body. Lawyers, experts and a civil liberties group have been arguing for years over whether testimony from bite-mark analysts was reliable enough for use in a criminal courtroom.

Yitref’s family also hasn’t pushed prosecutors for a trial, which could dredge up painful memories of the dark turns her life took at the end, even before she met Dean.

Raised by a single mother in Washington in the shadow of Mount Rainier, Yitref was an aspiring fashion design student when she left home in the late 1990s. By the time she died, she was impoverished, addicted to drugs, working as a prostitute and had mysteriously lost a finger.

“I just think the big city swallowed her up,” said her aunt, Kristine Hamilton.

Dean was arrested on Aug. 31, 2007, two days after he abruptly checked out of the Hotel Carter, a shabby budget hotel where he had been staying for two weeks.

At the time, Dean was wanted in Alabama for failing to comply with a sex offender registry law, and wanted in Clarksville, Tennessee, where he had been accused of stealing a woman’s car and cleaning out her bank account. Dean was required to register as a sex offender because of a lewd act involving a child in Palm Beach, Florida.

Yitref’s body was found in Dean’s room after he checked out.

She had grown up in Yakima, Washington, with her mother, Geri Ann Johnson, and little sister Casandra. She was beautiful, tall and funny and smart, her younger cousins looked up to her, Hamilton said.

Yitref left home in the late 1990s and eventually landed in New York. She enrolled in design school, hung out with hipsters and dated a photographer. But somewhere along the way, drugs took hold. When her mother died in 2004, she didn’t go back for the funeral.

“We never expected a turnaround like what happened,” Hamilton said.

In the year before her death, Yitref was arrested at least six times for prostitution and drugs.

After his arrest, Dean claimed self-defense. He told investigators he had brought Yitref to his hotel room after she propositioned him in the street. After she disrobed, though, he said, her pimp burst in and the two of them attacked him and tried to steal his bag. Dean acknowledged punching and choking Yitref but denied killing her. In his account, the pimp fled.

Up until this year, prosecutors with the Manhattan district attorney’s office had planned to use forensic comparison of a bite mark found on Yitref’s body to Dean’s teeth as evidence in the case.

The evidence was contested as junk science by Dean’s defense; at least 24 men convicted or charged with murder or rape based on bite marks found on victims have been exonerated in the U.S. since 2000. Litigation on the issue took up more than three years. A judge ruled in 2013 that the bite mark evidence could be used but never filed a written ruling.

The issue was still hanging over the trial when prosecutors in January informed the court that they no longer needed to present bite mark evidence at the trial to prove their case.

“Witnesses and the victim’s family, as well as the defendant, deserve to have this case resolved,” prosecutors wrote.

Dean is now 44. State law says most felony cases must be ready for trial within six months, but murder cases don’t have a speedy trial clock. The average time from arraignment to trial completion for a criminal case is about a year and a half in New York City. Authorities said there are at least three other suspects incarcerated since 2008 who remain jailed awaiting trial.

Dean’s lawyer had no comment.

While Yitref’s relatives seek justice, they dread the trial, Hamilton said.

“It brings up a lot of emotions,” she said. Dean’s tale of a robbery, she added, is surely a lie.

“He makes it look like she did something, she did something she shouldn’t have done and she ended up dead,” Hamilton said. “But nobody deserves to die like that.”