November 17

The jury in the Johnny Oquendo murder trial was apparently able to condense three complicated weeks of argument and testimony, into roughly three hours of deliberation.

The verdict: guilty on all three counts of murder, strangulation, and concealing a corpse. Oquendo was convicted for killing his stepdaughter Noel Alkaramla in November 2015 by strangling her inside his Troy apartment. He then folded her body into a suitcase, rolled it to the Hudson River, and threw it in.

Alkaramla’s body was recovered from the river more than a month later, after floating to the riverbank near Albany.

The 12-member Rensselaer County jury returned its verdict just after 11 a.m. Friday. Inside the courtroom, Oquendo simply bowed his head and stared at the floor as he heard the decision.

In the gallery, Debra Napoli sobbed and quietly thanked God for the guilty verdict. Napoli is the mother of murder victim Noel Alkaramla, and has fought for two years to see Oquendo pay for his crimes.

“It’s our Thanksgiving. This is justice for Noel,” she tearfully rejoiced outside court. “Yesterday was that monster (Oquendo’s) birthday. So ‘happy birthday’ to him, the Satan.”

That justice, did not come easy: the trial was planned to last two weeks, but stretched an extra four days due to procedural missteps. For that, assistant district attorney Andrew Botts was reprimanded three times by Judge Andrew Ceresia, culminating Tuesday, when the judge said: “This is a burden that your office has caused ... these are delays that could have been avoided, and they weren’t. And frankly, I’m sick of it.”

After Friday’s verdict, district attorney Joel Abelove defended his top prosecutor, Botts.

“To anybody out there who did doubt his abilities: I don’t know if they really saw him in action,” Abelove said. “He is the consummate professional, and this verdict bears out all the hard work he put into the case.”

The case was jeopardized by Botts’ star witness: Oquendo’s ex-girlfriend Amanda Whitman provided critical testimony, linking Oquendo to his own suitcase inside Noel’s body was found. But for all her importance, Whitman was an altogether flawed witness. Defense attorney Bill Roberts uncovered her diagnosed mental illnesses, her self-described psychic abilities — even her proclivity for having sex with animals.

It would appear, in the end, the jury trusted Whitman anyway. Roberts credited the prosecution.

“[Andrew Botts] is a professional man,” Roberts conceded. “Obviously he has a lot of unexpected things that have to come up during a trial. And he dealt with them the way he best could.”

Oquendo decided not to testify in his own trial. He is set to be sentenced on December 21. He will face 25 years to life for the murder conviction.

November 16

The case is complete in the Johnny Oquendo murder trial — now the jurors begin the arduous process of deciding whether Oquendo is a murderer, who threw his stepdaughter’s body in the Hudson River.

Closing arguments wrapped up just after 3 p.m. on Thursday in Rensselaer County’s state supreme court. In summarizing the proceedings, Assistant District Attorney Andrew Botts laid out the prosecution’s familiar tale: outlining from the beginning, how Noel Alkaramla asked to be dropped off near her stepfather’s South Troy apartment on November 22, 2015, and how her last phone call was made to Johnny Oquendo’s cell phone — before her phone records went silent, for good.

Botts says shortly afterwards, the grisly murder happened when Oquendo violently struck Alkaramla and knocked her to the floor.

“Now she’s unconscious,” Botts explained. “And the defendant took a grocery bag, rolled it tightly until he nearly had a rope, and tied it and knotted it around the right side of her neck. That knot would ultimately lead to her suffocation.”

“After that had been done,” he continued, “the defendant takes her body, and folds it and manipulates it, and stuffs her into this suitcase.”

Later, Botts would review surveillance video that shows a hooded figure dragging a wheeled suitcase towards the Hudson River. He also recalled the testimony of Amanda Whitman, Oquendo’s ex-girlfriend, who testified that the suitcase in evidence belonged to Johnny Oquendo.

But that is where the defense pounced: the bulk of attorney Bill Roberts’ closing argument kept coming back to Whitman, the star witness for the prosecution who admitted to multiple, fatal character flaws.

“This is the witness that Mr. Botts’ foundation of his case is built upon. He needs that witness to say, ‘I know that suitcase. I’ve seen that suitcase before.' "

“But what else has she seen?” Roberts said, launching into a diatribe on Whitman’s mental health records. “She has auditory, visual and tactile hallucinations. That means she sees, hears and feels things that do not exist."

Whitman’s mental health status was borne out during testimony over the past two weeks, when she admitted to having three diagnosed mental illnesses and practicing as a psychic medium.

“She also came here with an axe to grind,” Roberts said. “She believed Johnny Oquendo was going to propose marriage to her. But when that relationship terminated, she was bitter. She was nasty. She developed a hate for Johnny Oquendo.”

“She is scorned, and she is out of her mind,” Roberts concluded. “Her perception of reality is not something that I think any of us can comprehend."

The jury received the case for deliberation late Thursday afternoon, but will begin the bulk of deliberations on Friday morning.

For real-time updates from the courtroom, follow Geoff on Twitter.

November 15

The prosecution has rested its case in Johnny Oquendo's murder trial.

Oquendo's ex-girlfriend Amanda Whitman was back on the stand this morning.

Tuessday, Whitman said Oquendo owned the same brand suitcase that Alkaramla's body was found in.

The defense continued its cross examination of Whitman, questioning her about her past drug use and mental health illnesses.

Once the prosecution rested its case, the defense asked the judge to throw out the trial and asked the court not to allow various evidence and testimony into trial. That includes testimony about the suitcase handle.

The handle itself is barred from being presented as evidence for chain of custody issues.

November 14

Finally, on the eighth day of testimony and after 24 witnesses had taken the stand, the jury in the Johnny Oquendo murder trial got to see the key piece of evidence Tuesday: the suitcase in which Noel Alkaramla’s body was stashed, before it was found at the bottom of the Hudson River in December 2015.

Assistant District Attorney Andrew Botts had waited until Tuesday in order to match the suitcase’s reveal with his key witness: Amanda Whitman. Whitman, the ex-girlfriend of Johnny Oquendo, was able to testify Tuesday that she recognized the suitcase as Oquendo’s from the time she spent living with him in 2015. The suitcase, she said, was kept in the couple’s closet.

It was the first time that Oquendo had been directly tied to any specific facet of the alleged murder of Alkaramla. Prosecutors have tried to prove that Oquendo strangled his 21-year-old stepdaughter at his Troy apartment, before disposing of her body in the suitcase, and tying the large, mud-splattered piece of luggage to Oquendo is a main component of the case against him.

Unfortunately for the prosecution, Oquendo’s ex-girlfriend is an extremely flawed witness.

On cross-examination Tuesday, defense attorney Bill Roberts continued to attack Whitman’s credibility — as he had already done when she first appeared in court last week, at which time Roberts brought up evidence that Whitman had sex with animals. Tuesday, Roberts got Whitman to variously admit that she is diagnosed with three mental illnesses (bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and an unclassified anxiety disorder); that she was a habitual marijuana smoker and heavy drinker in 2015; and that she dabbles in psychic connections and believes she can communicate with the dead.

In addition, Roberts brought up substantial evidence that Whitman held a long-standing grudge against Oquendo after the couple broke up. Forensic cell phone records revealed that Whitman often texted him things like “go die,” “go drown,” “I hope you slip on a knife,” and “you can go fall down the stairs.”

In other trial business Tuesday, the prosecution brought lead investigator Patrick Bornt to the witness stand. Bornt, a former detective with the Troy Police, did not offer much on direct testimony. The biggest revelation from Bornt came on cross-examination, when he admitted to Roberts that he had never pursued a lead from a tipster named “Shawnee Cannon.” According to Bornt’s investigation notes, Cannon had claimed she saw Alkaramla alive around 11:30 p.m. on November 22, 2015 — more than an hour after the prosecution believes Alkaramla was murdered.

A witness from the Troy Housing Authority also came to court to introduce surveillance video from the Taylor Apartments on Front Street. Video from November 22, 2015, shows a hooded figure walking towards the Hudson River, pulling a wheeled suitcase. However, as with other surveillance videos in the trial, it is impossible to identify the person on these new tapes.

The murder trial resumes on Wednesday morning, when the prosecution is expected to rest its case. The defense team is likely to call at least two witnesses.

November 13

If you've been following the blog, you know by now that the suitcase is a vital piece of evidence. Johnny Oquendo is accused of stuffing his murdered stepdaughter's body inside it, before tossing it in the Hudson River.

Back in court on Monday, the difficulties for the prosecution team continued -- including a near-loss of the suitcase evidence.

The suitcase, which has been referenced throughout the trial and is sitting, concealed, inside the courtroom, had still not been published into evidence for the jury to view. When prosecutors finally tried to do so on Monday, they were met by an objection from the defense team, claiming that the proper "chain of custody" had not been established for the suitcase. This means that the prosecution had not proved that the suitcase in the courtroom is the same suitcase that was pulled from the Hudson River in December 2015.

"Chain of custody" refers to who has the suitcase from the moment it is in possession of law enforcement to the moment it is entered as evidence in the courtroom.

In addition to the suitcase, its telescoping handle -- which was broken off and found separately in the river -- and a plastic grocery bag tied around victim Noel Alkaramla's neck to strangle her were both challenged by the defense for their lacking chain of custody.

Judge Andrew Ceresia dwelled on the matter for nearly two hours in his private chambers Monday, which caused significant delay in the afternoon trial proceedings. In the end, Ceresia ruled that the suitcase and the plastic grocery bag could be entered as evidence, since there was a "reasonable" establishment of their integrity. The suitcase handle, however, is barred from the courtroom. The jury will never see it.

Elsewhere in court Monday, an important statement made by Oquendo during the police investigation of Alkaramla's disappearance was also barred from trial. The comments Oquendo made during a police interrogation in December 2015 were deemed inadmissible, because Oquendo was not properly read his Miranda rights before the questioning began.

In DNA evidence Monday, we also learned that State Police forensic scientist Mallory Gage had previously tested fingernail scrapings from Alkaramla's body. The scrapings are often used during murder trials, in the hopes that a victim might have fought back against their attacker by scratching their skin, thus leaving a DNA trace. However, Alkaramla's fingernails revealed no DNA from Oquendo; in fact, her fingernails contained DNA from not one, but two different male subjects -- neither of whom could be identified through DNA analysis.

The trial resumes again Tuesday morning. Originally, the prosecution had expected to rest its case by Tuesday afternoon, but the two-hour delay on Monday afternoon has thrown that timeline into doubt.

November 9

She was not supposed to be the star witness Thursday, but Amanda Whitman's testimony took over the Johnny Oquendo murder trial -- and not by design, either.

Whitman was testifying for the prosecution. Her original role was simply to identify herself as Oquendo's ex-girlfriend, then identify his cell phone number, and his alleged murder victim's phone number.

But when the defense had a chance to respond, it pounced, attacking Whitman's character in a way no one expected.

"It's true, isn't it, that you broke off your relationship with Johnny Oquendo after discovering pictures of him and Noel Alkaramla on his phone?" Whitman was asked.

"Not correct," she replied.

"Well, isn't it true that Johnny Oquendo broke off his relationship with you because he discovered you were having sex with an [animal]?" the defense countered. Whitman also denied this.

But when defense attorney Bill Roberts proposed to play confiscated videos of her alleged act, Whitman relented: "Those were taken after my relationship with Johnny Oquendo," she said.

And the character assassination had made its mark.

Whitman answered no further questions, but her testimony overshadowed an important day of testimony. Among the witnesses were two forensic scientists — the second of whom, Mallory Gage, actually tested DNA samples taken from inside the deceased victim's body.

The prosecution believes that DNA will tie Oquendo to his alleged victim Noel Alkaramla on the night she disappeared. But the future of that evidence is doubt, after the defense objected at the end of the day.

Gage will be back on the stand Monday, as the prosecution tries once again to submit this crucial DNA evidence before the jury. The trial begins early: Oquendo is due back before the judge Monday at 9 a.m.

November 8

Wednesday's installment in the Johnny Oquendo murder trial was relatively uneventful. Much of the day's testimony centered on how police collect and process evidence, and whether there were any errors in those procedures during the investigation into Noel Alkaramla's murder.

Outside the courtroom, Spectrum News was able to exclusively obtain the city surveillance video shown to jurors last week. Prosecutors will claim that it shows Johnny Oquendo rolling a large, dark-colored suitcase toward the Hudson River, then later leaving without that suitcase. Prosecutors say Noel Alkaramla's lifeless body was stuffed inside that suitcase and thrown into the river on November 22, 2015.

The surveillance video from that night was captured on municipal cameras at various city intersections. The most important angle depicts the intersection of River Street, 3rd Street and Fulton Street. It shows a figure dressed in a dark hooded sweatshirt, dragging a large wheeled suitcase north on River Street at around 11:23 p.m. The person crosses River Street, headed towards Riverfront Park. About 20 minutes later, the same person returns to the intersection, crosses River Street and proceeds south down 3rd Street. Three minutes later, a second camera at the intersection of 3rd Street and Congress Street captures the same person heading further south.

While the district attorney's office will likely insist that Oquendo is the man pictured in the videos, a Spectrum News​ digital enhancement of the video created a better view than jurors were able to see in the courtroom -- and still, the video was inconclusive on whether the person wearing the hooded sweatshirt was even male or female. The person's size, walking pattern and race are all impossible to detect. Even isolated frames of video are incapable of clearly showing the person's face.

See the video for yourself above.

The Johnny Oquendo murder trial adjourned at 1:05 p.m. Wednesday, which was an unusually early end to the trial day. Court will resume at 9:30 a.m. Thursday in Rensselaer County Court.

November 6

Chatter among onlookers in the Rensselaer County Supreme Court gallery on Monday was dominated by the burning question: Will the prosecution present any evidence that directly ties Johnny Oquendo to the murder of Noel Alkaramla?

Assistant district attorney Andrew Botts supplemented his narrative of the crime Monday, calling four more witnesses who testified to the prosecution's theory: that Johnny Oquendo strangled Alkaramla, stuffed her body in a suitcase and hurled it into the Hudson River, where it was spotted five days later, floating miles to the south near Albany.

Witness Sean McCarthy, a property manager at the Hudson Apartments on River Street in Troy, introduced more nighttime surveillance video from November 22, 2015. In the video, similar to previous ones, a hooded figure can be seen walking along the riverfront in Troy wearing an unmarked sweatshirt. The time of night matches the prosecution's theory about Oquendo, but the person on the video is basically unidentifiable.

Troy Police Patrolman Martin Furciniti testified about his role as an evidence technician in the case. On December 8, 2015, a crew of divers discovered a telescoping suitcase handle, detached from its suitcase and sunken to the bottom of the river near Troy's Riverfront Park. Officer Furciniti collected the handle and returned it to the police station. No fingerprints were ever recovered from the handle.

Anthony Renna testified next; an employee at the Dutch Apple Cruises company, Renna was the most intriguing witness of the day. On Black Friday 2015, Renna was completing winter maintenance on a cruise boat along the seawall in Albany, when he spotted a black suitcase floating about 15 feet off-shore. Renna says he used a boat hook to retrieve the suitcase, but once he grabbed hold of it, it immediately sank.

"I thought, 'Well, we'll never know what was in there,' " Renna recalled Monday. Days later, he saw a news broadcast detailing the police search for a similar suitcase. Renna decided to call Troy Police and alert them to what he saw.

On cross examination, Renna admitted to the defense team that after he called Troy Police, the department never called him back and never traveled to search the Hudson River near Albany. In fact, it wasn't until after Christmas that Renna's boss tipped the New York State Police to what Renna saw. Shortly after, State Police visited the location and found the suitcase with Alkaramla's body locked inside on December 30.

The longest witness testimony of the day came from State Police forensic investigator Brian Kenney. Much of Kenney's testimony focused on a trampled patch of grass at Riverfront Park in Troy. Kenney never said why the grass was important, though the inference was that this may be the spot where the suitcase was thrown into the river. However, defense attorney Bill Roberts seized on the ambiguity and tore into Kenney's analysis of the patch of grass, suggesting that anyone or anything could have trampled the grass in the days, weeks or even months before Alkaramla's disappearance in November 2015.

Kenney's testimony was also the first time prosecutors acknowledged their key piece of physical evidence: the suitcase in which Noel's body was found -- though in a puzzling move, the jury was not allowed to see the suitcase after Kenney positively identified it. Kenney was also forced to admit that no fingerprints were found on the suitcase, its handle, or any of the items found inside the suitcase alongside Alkaramla's body.

The prosecution has promised DNA evidence to come, but none was uncovered or discussed on Monday.

Oquendo's murder trial takes a break Tuesday for the state and federal Election Day holiday.​ The trial resumes at 9:30 a.m. on Wednesday.

November 3

By Jorja Roman, Spectrum News Staff

During the third day of testimony in Johnny Oquendo's murder trial, jurors saw some crucial evidence, and the defense attorney served victim Noel Alkaramla's mother a subpoena.

Debra Napoli hoped to listen to testimony on Friday in the courtroom. She traveled into town from out of state to represent her daughter and fight for justice. It was her first day in court since the trial began on Monday. Instead, she was met with a subpoena to testify in the trial for the defense. Since this subpoena states she's a witness, she was asked to leave the courtroom.

"I’m subpoenaed by the defendant? What a monster. He’s a monster. I pray for justice for Noel," Napoli said outside the courtroom.

The first witness of the day was Dr. Michael Sikirica, the Rensselaer County medical examiner who also works for Albany County. He performed Noel's autopsy and declared her cause of death to be blunt force trauma and asphyxiation.

The jurors saw graphic images of Noel's body in the suitcase and injuries to her face. Sikirica said he conducted a sexual assault kit during the autopsy and sent it to the New York State Police. But defense attorney Bill Roberts questioned him about whether there was evidence of sexual assault, such as bruising. Dr. Sikirica said there was not.

In opening statements, Roberts said his client had a consensual sexual relationship with Noel. Roberts also questioned Dr. Sikirica about whether he could be certain Noel's death was intentionally caused by another person, and he said he could not.

The next witness was one we heard from on Thursday. Troy Police Captain Brian Owens returned to the stand to continue testimony on surveillance videos from the city. The flash drive couldn’t be entered into evidence on Thursday since he hadn’t reviewed the copies of the videos before trial to ensure they were accurate. Jurors saw a video on River Street that showed a person dragging something toward the direction of the Hudson River. Then minutes later, a person walked back from that direction, not dragging anything.

In cross examination, Roberts focused on the possibility the videos may not be accurate.

The final witness was New York State Police Trooper Michael Wzientek. He was the diver who found the suitcase that had Noel's body inside on December 30, 2015. His testimony went without follow-up questions from the defense.

The big question remaining after Friday: Will the defense actually have Napoli testify?

November 2

The second day of testimony in the Johnny Oquendo murder trial featured little of that — testimony.

Instead, most of the five hours in the courtroom were dedicated to a chaotic string of objections, private discussions, and long breaks away from the jury.

All of it stemmed from the case being assembled by Rensselaer County Assistant District Attorney Andrew Botts, who is leading the murder prosecution. Botts was unable to launch his narrative before the jury on Thursday, because all of his witnesses and evidence came under fire from defense attorney Bill Roberts.

The day began with a puzzling private conference between the judge, attorneys and two jurors. It lasted about 90 minutes, with no explanation.

Botts' first witness, Velvet Johnson, is a employee at Monument Square Apartments in downtown Troy, and her purpose was simply to present and verify surveillance video from her building. Roberts, however, succeeded in obscuring and slowing Johnson's testimony by attacking the way in which Botts presented the video. Although Johnson gave the video to police on a flash drive, Botts presented it on a hard disc DVD — which meant the video was not actually the "original" evidence. After a break to make his decision, Judge Andrew Ceresia ultimately gave Botts a pass and permitted the evidence.

The second witness for the prosecution was the most important: Troy Police captain Brian Owens brought forth video surveillance from the Troy municipal camera system, which will purportedly show Johnny Oquendo dragging a heavy suitcase through the streets of Troy towards the Hudson River (Oquendo is accused of murdering Noel Alkaramla, stuffing her body in a suitcase and throwing it in the river). But Owens, who administrates the police video cameras, downloaded the video from the system but never reviewed it before trial to confirm it is an accurate copy of the city surveillance video — a critical procedural step. A witness who cannot confirm the accuracy of a video cannot legally testify about a video, and so the jury was never able to see the prosecution's key evidence Thursday. Owens' testimony was suspended indefinitely Thursday, until Botts can better prepare him for trial.

The final witness of the day appeared to be the most routine: Ricardo Leal, a records custodian for the Sprint cellular telephone company, was called to introduce cell phone records for murder victim Noel Alkaramla. But the defense objected when a previously undiscovered error on the paperwork, misspelling Alkaramla's name, "Arkaramla." The inaccuracy led Judge Andrew Ceresia to disallow the evidence — which would have shown that Noel's last phone call before she died was made to Oquendo's phone. Ricardo Leal's testimony was also suspended until a later date.

In the end, Botts may still be able to present the evidence. Both the surveillance video and the call records may be unveiled later in the murder trial. But Botts' power to craft a chronological narrative, and to his ability control the jury's perception of the case, has been deeply affected by Thursday's delays and shortcomings. Indeed, the jury likely spent as much or more time outside the courtroom while judge and attorneys conferenced, then they actually spent inside the courtroom listening to witness testimony.

At the end of Thursday's proceedings, Judge Andrew Ceresia told Botts: "At some point, this train has got to get rolling again ... you've got to be better prepared."

"We promised the jury that this would be a two-week trial," Ceresia said, "but at the pace we're going, it feels more like it will be a 10-week trial."

District Attorney Joel Abelove declined to comment on Botts' performance Thursday, citing a wish not to distract from the ongoing trial proceedings.

The godsister of Noel Alkaramla, who was in the courtroom Thursday, was not so reserved. Laurice Chapman shook her head as she left the courthouse in the afternoon.

"That prosecutor better get his s*** together," Chapman said.

The trial resumes at 10 a.m. Friday.

November 1

By far, Wednesday's most significant developments were the pair of motions brought by defense attorney Bill Roberts, asking Judge Andrew Ceresia to declare a mistrial, which would end the current trial and put Oquendo's case on hold for many more months. It's unusual for a defense attorney to bring these motions so early in a trial — normally, the attorney will wait until all the evidence is heard, then ask for a mistrial declaration just before closing arguments. But Roberts had legitimate grounds for the motion Wednesday. Here's why:

During the testimony of prosecution witness Kyle Kern, a past conversation between Kern and defendant Johnny Oquendo was discussed. Here's roughly what Kern recalled.

"[Oquendo] told me, 'I've been doing good since Mohawk-Hudson, but I messed up. I need a lawyer.' "

That could be illegal prosecution testimony, under a trial rule which prevents prosecutors from presenting any evidence that shows a defendant exercising his Sixth Amendment right to a lawyer in the presence of police. In essence, a prosecutor cannot play a police interrogation tape in which a defendant tells a police detective, "I want a lawyer before I speak to you about anything."

Furthermore, all the attorneys had previously agreed that to avoid those legal problems, Kern would not mention the instance where Oquendo talked about needing an attorney.

Since the agreement appeared to be broken, Roberts objected. The trial was stopped as Roberts requested a mistrial on the grounds that Kyle Kern had unfairly depicted Oquendo exercising his Sixth Amendment right. Judge Ceresia ultimately disagreed, but upheld the objection and told the jury he was "striking" the testimony and they should forget about that. Plus, Kern was instructed again not to mention anything about Oquendo wanting to hire an attorney.

Then the trial resumed — and Kern mentioned the same thing again.

Here's his exact testimony: "We just talked about stuff that was going on. He [Oquendo] told me that he need to lawyer up, he did some messed-up things. And that was about it."

Roberts became openly angry at this point, and the trial was stopped again as he asked for the mistrial a second time.

"You rang the bell once, and then you rang it again — louder," Roberts told the judge, who actually took a 15-minute recess to decide whether he should throw out the trial.

Ultimately, Ceresia did not grant the mistrial. All of the offending testimony was removed from the official trial record.​ Kern, however, was barred from any further testimony due to his failure to cooperate with instructions.

The prosecution on Wednesday called its first four witnesses, all of whom helped lay out a timeline of when murder victim Noel Alkaramla was last seen alive, and when Johnny Oquendo may have killed her.

Joshua Keefe, a former cook at Verdile's Restaurant in Lansingburgh, was the first witness. Keefe worked alongside Alkaramla. He drove her home from work on the night of November 22, 2015, but she asked to be dropped off on street corner in South Troy, near where Oquendo lived.

Witness Anthony Melite was next. He lived in the apartment below Oquendo's on 170 3rd Street in Troy. Melite testified that on the evening of November 22, 2015, he was just sitting down to watch "The Walking Dead" with his roommates when a loud crash rang out from the foyer hallway outside his apartment door. Melite opened the door and found Oquendo struggling with a large, heavy suitcase. He said he tried to help Oquendo with it, but the defendant repeatedly said, "It's fine," and blocked Melite's path to the suitcase.

Roommate Cassondra Chapko also heard the crash in the hallway. She testified that earlier in the evening, she had tried to lay down for a nap, but was interrupted by the sound of a man and woman fighting in the upstairs apartment. Chapko said during the argument, she heard a loud scream and then "a bump ... like a big weight being dropped." Then, silence.

In brief testimony (see above), Kyle Kern reiterated most of what Melite said, and also testified that he saw the suitcase in the hallway, and that it was black. Roberts seized on previous grand jury testimony where Kern had called the suitcase blue or purple. Kern had no explanation why his story changed, other than he may have simply lied under oath to the grand jury.

"Yeah ... I guess so," he told Roberts.

Enduring the courtroom drama all day long, Laurice Chapman and Deborah Johnson took a break to tell Spectrum News that they were clinging to their faith in the justice system.

"I hope so. I really hope so," Chapman said, when asked if she had faith that prosecutors could convince the jury of Oquendo's guilt.

The entire trial has made both women uneasy. Chapman, who was Noel Alkaramla's god-sister, became emotional when asked if she was aware that the evidence could become graphic.

Johnson, who is a longtime friend with Alkaramla's mother Debra Napoli, said she resents the defense team's tactic of attacking Noel's character.

“They’re are describing her as a drug addict and a prostitute. That's not her. She's not those things," Johnson said. "We had good times. She was a good person."

Both women said on Wednesday that they can feel Noel's presence with them in the courtroom. Chapman had even attempted to bring an urn containing Noel's ashes to court, but it was turned away.

"She's here. She's definitely here," Chapman said Wednesday. "I wear her bracelet here every day. It's not going anywhere."

Alkaramla's mother, Debra Napoli, is currently living out-of-state and was unable to make it to Troy for the beginning of the trial. She now expects to arrive for Friday morning's testimony.

"I want people there to know that this mother is coming," Napoli said by phone on Wednesday. "I will come to the trial, for justice for my belated daughter."

October 31

The murder trial against Johnny Oquendo has begun.

Opening statements were delivered this afternoon in Rensselaer County Court. Oquendo is accused of killing his stepdaughter Noel Alkaramla, and dumping her body in the Hudson River.

The jury began to hear just some of the new and horrific details today, including how prosecutors say Oquendo used a grocery bag and Noel's own hair to tie up her neck and strangle her to death. But it appears much of this case will center on what was found inside the victim’s body, and what that means about her relationship with the accused killer.

Those last hours, on November 22, 2015, were horrifying, according to assistant district attorney Andrew Botts. And his opening statement Tuesday blamed it all on Oquendo.

Prosecution evidence will purportedly show Oquendo dragging the suitcase in which Alkaramla was found to Riverfront Park. But we now know the prosecution has hard evidence: sperm DNA, taken from inside Noel’s body.

Prosecutors will say Oquendo strangled and sexually assaulted Alkaramla before killing her. But defense attorney Bill Roberts is ready to provide another explanation.

"Johnny had a caring relationship with Noel," Roberts said. "You are going to hear that the caring relationship developed into a casual sexual relationship."

With a full jury now ready to hear the case, Oquendo will be on trial for likely the next two weeks.