By David Brand
A juror affidavit and motion filed by the defense in the case of the man convicted of killing Karina Vetrano details a contentious jury room, where panelists allegedly discussed the case throughout proceedings and pressured one another to arrive at a verdict — behavior that, if true, could amount to juror misconduct. Three other juror affidavits filed by the prosecution refute those claims, however.
A day after sentencing was postponed for Chanel Lewis, who was convicted of murdering Vetrano, the Eagle obtained the defense motion alleging juror misconduct, which prompted the delay, as well as juror affidavits submitted by the prosecution. The redacted documents were filed in the court records office Thursday morning.
The attorneys representing Lewis filed a motion (known as a 330 motion) Wednesday claiming that jurors engaged in three forms of misconduct during the trial, based on the sworn affidavit of a juror labeled Juror A. Justice Michael Aloise scheduled a hearing to address the motion for Monday, April 22.
Lewis, 22, was found guilty of first-degree murder, two counts of second-degree murder and sexual abuse — on which the first-degree murder charge was predicated — after about five hours of deliberations on April 1, the same night that deliberations began. But issues among the jurors may have tainted that verdict.
Juror A’s affidavit — redacted by the court — states that at least one juror, labeled Juror B and referred to as the jury foreperson by the prosecution, began discussing his belief that Lewis was guilty on the second day of the trial.
“Well I have my mind made up, and I hope you do too,” Juror B told the others, according to the affidavit. Juror B continued to comment on the court testimony by saying things like “I can’t believe this” and “this is so sad,” according to the affidavit.
The Legal Aid Society defense team cited case law and wrote that, if true, “Juror B failed to heed the Court’s strict and repeated admonitions not to form an opinion about the guilt of the Defendant or speak to anyone about the case until the case was submitted to the jury for their deliberation.”
Juror A also said that Juror B ripped up a note to the court asking how long deliberations would last into the night. The jury returned their verdict at roughly 9:30 p.m. on April 1, but Juror A described how tech problems prevented the jury from reviewing the videotaped confession that Lewis gave police and prosecutors the morning after his arrest. Juror A wanted to watch the tapes again jurors allegedly grew impatient waiting for the tapes.
“When the TVs were not working when we asked to see the confession tape, we went back into the deliberation room,” Juror A said. “Some of the jurors said, ‘Do you really need to see it again? It’s going to take three hours. We’re going be here until 1 a.m.'”
Two other jurors, labeled Juror C and Juror D, injected special knowledge into deliberations and pressured their peers based on their previous experiences, Juror A said. Each claim could constitute misconduct.
Juror C had previously served on the jury of a rape trial and Juror D said she was a victim of sexual assault, the juror said in the affidavit. Both Juror C and Juror D applied information from those experiences to the case in order to find Lewis guilty of sexual abuse and pressured fellow jurors to do the same, Juror A said.
Juror A said he did not think the prosecution made a strong case for the sexual abuse charge. The first-degree murder charge hinged on whether Lewis was found guilty of sexual abuse. (A juror who reached out to the Eagle the day after sentencing described similar issues in an exclusive interview. The affidavit is redacted and thus the Eagle cannot confirm whether it is the same juror.)
Lead prosecutor Brad Leventhal told the jury during trial that Lewis “had his way” with Vetrano after strangling her and that Lewis had inserted his fingers into Vetrano’s vagina and anus. But Juror A questioned why Lewis’ DNA was not found on Vetrano’s vagina or anus, according to the affidavit.
Juror D, the alleged rape survivor, responded that the vagina acts “like a sponge or vacuum” and “had absorbed the male DNA,” according to the affidavit.
“You’re just a man, I’ve been raped,” Juror D allegedly said, according to Juror A’s affidavit.
Juror C said, “This is what the body looked like in my prior case, that guy was guilty of rape,” according to the affidavit.
The defense shared the affidavit with the prosecution on Monday. In response, prosecutors obtained three affidavits from other jurors who Leventhal said “specifically deny and controvert every allegation” of misconduct.
The prosecution obtained an affidavit from one juror who said she never talked about being raped, according to an affidavit with the juror’s name redacted. In fact, the juror said she had never been the victim of rape at all.
”I have never been raped and I have never claimed to anyone to have been raped,” the juror said in the affidavit.
It is unclear whether the juror who submitted that affidavit was Juror D, who had allegedly claimed to be a rape victim.
Juror B, who allegedly said “my mind is made up” early in the trial, stated in an affidavit that he did not recall saying that. Juror B also said that he did not rip up a note to the court asking how long jurors would have to stay at court deliberating.
Juror C, who had previously served on the jury at a rape trial, said that she did mention that experience but was immediately instructed by another juror not to discuss that or draw comparisons, according to the affidavit.
“Neither juror presented themselves as a professional expert,” the Queens District Attorney’s office wrote. “Instead, each juror in the case drew upon one's personal life experience and relayed their own lay opinion. This was not misconduct.”
The jury ultimately determined that Lewis brutally attacked Vetrano while she jogged in Howard Beach’s Spring Creek Park in August 2016. Prosecutors said Vetrano fought ferociously as Lewis strangled her to death before dragging her into the weeds along the trail.
Leventhal said it was a random encounter and a “crime of opportunity” and built the case against Lewis based on videotaped confessions that Lewis gave police and prosecutors and DNA evidence found on the back of Vetrano’s neck, nails and cellphone.
The defense team argued that the confessions were coerced and that the DNA could have been introduced accidentally by one of the scores of first-responders who canvassed the crime scene.