By David Brand
Chanel Lewis sat slightly slouched in a gray suit and black shoes, biting his nails and rubbing his face over nearly two hours as the prosecutor Brad Leventhal built a dramatic and comprehensive case for Lewis’ guilt in the rape and murder of Karina Vetrano. Vetrano was killed in August 2016 as she jogged in Spring Creek Park, near her Howard Beach home.
Occasionally, Lewis glanced at the jury or turned his head to look behind him, but he focused straight ahead each time Leventhal walked toward him and pointed him out as the killer.
Across the courtroom, about 30 of Vetrano’s friends and neighbors filled the gallery, where they were joined by several assistant district attorneys. Her mother Cathie Vetrano cried as Leventhal described how Vetrano’s father Phil Vetrano opted not to jog with her that day of the murder — “a decision that would haunt him for the rest of his life,” Leventhal said.
The heartbroken mother also teared up as the prosecutor described the moment Phil Vetrano found Karina’s body. Vetrano’s sister rocked in her seat for a portion of the proceedings.
The murder, Leventhal said, was a “crime of random violence, a crime of opportunity” triggered by Lewis’ anger after a neighbor played loud music near his East New York apartment.
“[Vetrano’s] dead because she was unlucky enough, misfortunate enough to be in a secluded location outside of the eyes and ears of anyone, but him,” Leventhal said, pointing at Lewis as Lewis stared straight ahead.
Judge Michael Aloise stood behind the bench with his arms folded listening to the opening statements. Most jurors sat stone-faced as Leventhal listed the evidence against Lewis, including a videotaped confession inside the 107th precinct during his arrest in February 2017 and the determination that Lewis’ DNA — obtained from a consensual cheek swab inside the East New York apartment he shared with his mother and sister — matched that of “Male Donor A,” a “DNA profile” discovered on Vetrano’s cell phone, neck and two fingernail clippings taken from Vetrano during an autopsy.
At the end of the opening statement, defense attorney Jenny Cheung requested a mistrial, saying that it was a “misstatement” to tell jurors that medical examiners were able to create a DNA profile of one male based on DNA found on Vetrano’s fingernails. Cheung said it was impossible for the jury to “unhear” the allegation. Aloise denied the request.
“That was an exaggeration of the evidence and no scientist would tell you that,” Cheung told the Eagle before the defense’s opening statements.
During the defense’s opening statement, which lasted less than 15 minutes, Cheung said that DNA evidence is “not open and close” and “actually creates a host of reasonable doubts.”
“The evidence will show the government is not 100 percent of everything that happened,” Cheung said. “They are trying to put a square peg in a round hole. They are twisting facts to fit a theory instead of twisting the theory to fit the facts.”
Lewis leaned over the table with his elbows splayed during Cheung’s statement.
Leventhal also described how Phil Vetrano led the police officers on a search the night that Vetrano did not return from her jog. Leventhal said Phil Vetrano, an outdoor enthusiast, noticed a disturbed patch of brush where leaves looked to be “turned over.” There, Phil Vetrano found Karina’s body face down in the dirt.
“He fell to his knees, wept and did what any parent would do. He cradled her and lifted her back to his chest,” Leventhal said. “Although he picked her up and cradled her, he did not disturb her … he lay her back down as she appeared.”
Leventhal said Phil Vetrano did not move his daughter’s clothing when he found her body. One of Karina’s legs was pulled out of her running shorts and the shorts were pulled to her thigh on the other leg. Leventhal did not mention Phil Vetrano’s DNA appearing on his daughter’s body.
With the investigation at an impasse six months later, NYPD Lt. John Russo, a Howard Beach resident, remembered encountering a “suspicious” man on May 30, 2016 — Memorial Day — and May 31, 2016. Both days, the man was dressed in a hooded sweatshirt and trackpants despite the heat, Leventhal said. The man was Chanel Lewis.
Leventhal said Russo called the police on May 31 and the responding officers took down Lewis’ name and date of birth. In late-January 2017, Russo recalled encountering Lewis and instructed officers to follow up with him.
On Feb. 2, police went to Lewis’ home and asked to conduct a cheek swab for DNA. Lewis, at home with his mother, consented to the search. Leventhal said Lewis’ DNA matched that of “Male Donor A” and the NYPD arrested him. Lewis spent the night in a precinct holding cell and, Leventhal said, ultimately confessed to the killing at 5:30 a.m.
“Can I speak to the family?” Leventhal said Lewis asked detectives in a videotaped statement. “I want to change my life around.”
In response, Cheung said that only a portion of Lewis’ time in the police precinct is accounted for. He also spent six hours inside a holding cell where his conversations with detectives went unrecorded.
Sometime between the murder and the consensual DNA sample, Lewis downloaded photos of the crime scene and searched for information about Vetrano’s murder — including information about familial DNA evidence — on his cell phone, which investigators obtained through a warrant, Leventhal said.
The defense objected to the statements about the cell phone information and Aloise asked the defense and prosecution to speak with him at the bench. After the conversation, Leventhal proceeded with his argument.
“[Lewis] was researching things, his phone was researching things, about this case before police had even contacted him,” Leventhal said, though he did not elaborate on the exact data contained on Lewis’ phone.
Leventhal said that in the time between Lewis’ DNA swab on Feb. 1 and his arrest on Feb. 3, his cell phone search history indicated that he had also searched for “prosecutorial discretion” and “second chances.”
“That was a mischaracterization of the evidence,” Cheung told the Eagle. “There is a difference in saying that someone downloaded something and having metadata appear after a search on a phone.”