By David Brand and Jonathan Sperling
The man convicted of killing Howard Beach jogger Karina Vetrano was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole Tuesday, following emotional statements from Vetrano’s family members who described their heartache.
Queens Supreme Court Justice Michael Aloise handed down the sentence three weeks after Lewis was convicted of first-degree murder, two counts of second-degree murder and sexual abuse for killing Vetrano in Howard Beach’s Spring Creek Park in August 2016. The conviction came more than two years after Lewis was arrested for the brutal crime and a day after Aloise denied a defense motion to set aside the verdict based on claims of juror misconduct. Lewis’ first trial ended in a split jury in November 2018.
“I’ve been personally involved in the criminal justice system my entire adult life. It can be difficult not to become jaded or numb,” Aloise said during sentencing. “Then you’re confronted with a case like this.”
“A case like this has the effect to shake you,” he said, describing how Vetrano was attacked and murdered while jogging in what he called a “random, senseless, horrific crime.”
Aloise invoked his own religious faith before announcing his sentence.
“There is something that keeps me going,” he said. “I believe in God who is at this very moment embracing Karina Vetrano.”
Aloise said he hoped Lewis would turn to God who is “eager to forgive.”
“But when you do do it, it’ll be in a cage,” Aloise said. “That’s a guarantee.”
For the first time since proceedings began in February 2017, Lewis spoke on his own behalf before Aloise’s sentence.
”I’m sorry for the family, but I didn’t do this,” Lewis said.
Aloise prodded him to continue, but Lewis, who wore a charcoal suit and quickly waved to his family with his hands cuffed behind his back before sitting, declined to add anything more. His defense attorneys from The Legal Aid Society sought to mitigate the most severe sentence of life without parole by reminding the court that Lewis had never been arrested before Feb. 4, 2016, when detectives brought him to the 107th Precinct station house for questioning related to the Vetrano case.
A DNA sample that Lewis had given detectives a few days earlier had matched DNA found on Vetrano’s cellphone and the back of her neck as well as in a mixture of DNA on her fingernails.
Lewis gave videotaped confessions to detectives and to Queens prosecutors the next morning after spending a sleepless night inside the station house. Defense attorneys argued that the confessions were coerced and that the DNA could have been transported to the phone and body by one of scores of first-responders who arrived at the crime scene.
Vetrano’s father, mother and sister each read victim impact statements to the court, invoking their faith and describing the pain of losing their beloved daughter. Karina was 30 when she was killed. She worked as a speech pathologist for children with autism.
Karina’s father Phil Vetrano addressed Aloise “man to man” from “the heart of one father of two girls to the heart of another father of two girls.”
“That monster killed four people that night. One is in heaven, the others walk the street as zombies waiting to be with Karina again,” Phil Vetrano said. “Only my faith in God and belief in heaven keeps me from killing myself for fear of not being allowed to see my baby.”
Phil Vetrano also spoke to Lewis directly, stating that Karina asked him to deliver a message.
“If you stand up in court and say you’re sorry, she will forgive you,” he said. “Remember these are not my words. These are her words. I will never forgive you.”
Karina’s mother Cathie Vetrano also addressed the court, while holding a pair of Karina’s white sneakers that she wore to work the day of her murder.
“These are the shoes of a giant,” said Cathie Vetrano, who wore a purple shawl. “A valiant warrior and a queen.”
“My grief counselors said grief includes losing part of oneself,” she continued. “But your honor, I’ve lost all of myself.”
Lead prosecutor Brad Leventhal wiped tears from his eyes during the family statements.
Lewis’ family and supporters maintain his innocence in spite of the verdict and sentence.
“My son is innocent,” Chanel Lewis’ mother Veta Lewis exclaimed almost immediately after Aloise announced the sentence. Defense attorney Julia Burke noted that Veta had rearranged her work schedule in order to never miss Chanel’s court appearances over the last two years.
The Legal Aid Society said in a statement that Lewis’ attorneys would appeal the case to the state Appellate Division.
“While there is no denying that Karina Vetrano’s death is tragic and that her family and friends suffered a great loss, every aspect of this case — from the police investigation to jury deliberations — was propelled by a desire to convict at all costs,” The Legal Aid Society said in a statement. “This was done without any concern for Mr. Lewis’s Constitutional rights to due process and a fair trial.
Rev. Kevin McCall, a civil rights activist and Lewis family spiritual adviser, said that the attorneys would file the appeal today.
The sentencing marked the end of what may be the last high-profile case overseen by Queens District Attorney Richard Brown, who will step down June 1. Queens Chief Assistant District Attorney John Ryan has run the office in the interim.
“For more than two years, the family of Karina Vetrano has been wrought with grief and heartache,” Ryan said in a statement. “It is my hope that this sentence gives the family some comfort knowing their loved one’s killer will never see freedom again.”