By David Brand
In contrasting styles, defense attorney Robert Moeller and Assistant District Attorney Brad Leventhal summarized the case for Chanel Lewis’ future, focusing a significant amount of attention on DNA evidence. Each statement lasted about two hours as scores of victim Karina Vetrano’s family members, friends and neighbors attentively watched.
Jurors began their deliberations late Monday afternoon.
Lewis, 22, is charged with second-degree murder, first-degree murder and aggravated sexual abuse — on which the first-degree murder charge is based — for the August 2016 murder of Karina Vetrano, a Howard Beach resident killed while jogging near her home.
Lewis’ sister hummed and his mother read the Bible in the second row of Queens Supreme Court’s ceremonial courtroom. Vetrano’s mother rocked in her seat, cried and stared at the back of Lewis’ head as Leventhal described the violent murder in what he called “chilling detail.”
Leventhal gesticulated throughout his theatrical statement, walking toward Lewis in the large courtroom and pointing to him from feet away, pantomiming punches and dropping to his knees to illustrate how he said Lewis kneeled on Karina Vetrano and pulled down her sports bra. The seasoned prosecutor read back lines from Lewis’ videotaped confessions and described what he deemed a “thorough and complete investigation” — the exact terms that the defense applied to prevent prosecutors from saying before the trial began.
Leventhal refused to drop the sex abuse charge despite a lack of DNA evidence and Lewis’ denials, according to trial testimony. He told jurors that Lewis attacked Vetrano out of “anger and sexual frustration” and to fulfill his “perverse sexual gratification.”
“Although the evidence of sexual abuse is circumstantial, it is compellingly circumstantial,” he said, listing injuries Vetrano sustained to her vagina and anus.
Moeller, however, spoke in a calm, dry tone as he picked apart each of the prosecution’s assertions. At times, Judge Michael Aloise strained to hear Moeller’s remarks.
As in the defense’s opening statement, Moeller told jurors that police and prosecutors were “trying to fit a square peg in a round hole.”
“What happened to Ms. Vetrano was horrible and no individual or their loved ones should go through that,” Moeller said. “[But] this case was a rush to judgement . . . They never allowed the evidence to develop a theory. Rather they wanted the evidence to fit their theory.”
Moeller criticized the crime scene investigation as “sloppy,” particularly in the hours between when Phil Vetrano — her father — found Karina Vetrano’s body and picked her up and the time when her body and other evidence were sent to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.
“You can’t blame Mr. Vetrano,” Moeller said. “You can’t even blame the police at this point [because] they were trying to figure out what happened.”
After that, however, an untold number of people entered the crime scene, potentially contaminating the site without anyone making a log of who was coming and going, Moeller said. In one glaring example of the lack of information, an unknown person covered Vetrano’s body with a yellow tarp of unknown origin, he said. The tarp was never swabbed for DNA.
Moeller repeated arguments made by his defense teammate Jenny Cheung throughout the trial about DNA transference at the crime scene. The veteran Legal Aid attorney questioned why — despite a violent, intimate struggle — investigators found only “a few skin cells” on Vetrano’s cell phone, fingernails and neck.
DNA could be “transferred to the crime scene with all the police officers who were there,” Moeller said. “It’s possible that one of those cops touched a surface that Mr. Lewis had touched.”
Moeller also said Lewis confessed to the crime to detectives and assistant district attorneys the morning after his arrest because he was wanted to call his family.
“He knew what they wanted to hear so he told them what they wanted to hear,” Moeller said. “Mr. Lewis had no knowledge of the case other than what was widely circulated.”
During his closing statement, Leventhal attacked the notion that Lewis’ DNA landed on Vetrano’s body and possessions after “floating in the ether.”
“Mr. Moeller would have you believe that DNA is floating everywhere in the air and it stuck to the crime scene, [but] only his. Only his,” Leventhal said. “Maybe his DNA is special. Maybe his DNA is magnetic. It’s ludicrous.”
During the trial, prosecutors repeatedly referenced a hand injury Lewis sustained the night of the murder. He received treatment for a hand wound at SUNY Downstate Hospital and told the treating resident that he fell while jogging. Prosecutors seized on a supervising doctor’s note, which called the wound a “classic boxer’s injury.”
Moeller criticized that metaphor.
“If you trip on the curb and sprain your ankle, is that a ‘classic skier’s injury?’” he asked.
Moeller noted that Vetrano’s cell phone, sneaker and earbuds were found in the weeds dozens of feet from the trail. He specifically questioned how Lewis could have thrown the items with a cut hand and a sprained wrist as well as how he could have dragged Karina Vetrano’s body into the weeds.
“I submit to you that Mr. Lewis couldn’t throw a phone 40 feet with a hand as it appears in the medical report.” he said. “If he had injured his hand [at the scene] it would be impossible.”
Last week, the Eagle reported on the contents of that medical record, which indicated that Lewis had no visible injuries on his body aside from the hand laceration. That part of the record seemed to contradict assertions by the prosecution that Lewis had scratches on his face from Vetrano’s fingernails.
Leventhal directly addressed this issue of the face scratches during his statement, explaining that Lewis told detectives and ADAs that Karina Vetrano did not scratch him significantly.
Moeller told jurors that there were no videos of Lewis in the vicinity of the crime scene, an argument that defense attorney Julia Burke tried to make during her closing statement Thursday. During the closing statements, Leventhal objected to all statements about lack of video featuring Lewis and Aloise sustained the objections.
Television news trucks lined Queens Boulevard outside the courthouse in Kew Gardens and the first-floor hallway was packed with photographers and film crews. The expected turnout and media attention prompted Judge Michael Aloise to move the trial to a ceremonial courtroom on the first floor. Scores of Karina Vetrano family members, friends, neighbors and other supporters — many of whom were wearing purple the victim’s favorite color — filled the rows behind the prosecutors.
Moeller acknowledged that the circumstantial evidence indeed looked bad for Lewis, but said that Lewis was the victim of a series of unfortunate coincidences. He urged jurors to also consider the unfortunate coincidences that led to the murder including that Karina Vetrano’s father Phil Vetrano declined to jog with her for the first time, that he had a “bad feeling” and that he found her body despite there being “tons of cops, police dogs and helicopters” at the scene.
“You have to give the same benefit of the doubt to Mr. Lewis as would the prosecution to Mr. Vetrano,” Moeller said.
Before the jury entered, defense attorney Jenny Cheung filed an application to prevent prosecutors from saying DNA was found under Vetrano’s finger nails when OCME Forensic Biology Department Assistant Director Linda Razzano testified that the sample may have appeared on top of her fingernails.