Queens DA's Office Hits Restart on Howard Beach Jogger Murder Trial

Chanel Lewis (left) and his defense team in November. Pool Photo by Curtis Means/File

Chanel Lewis (left) and his defense team in November. Pool Photo by Curtis Means/File

By David Brand

Jury selection is scheduled to begin Tuesday in the retrial of the man accused of killing Karina Vetrano while she was jogging near her Howard Beach home in August 2016.

Chanel 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 allegedly killing Vetrano during a random encounter on a secluded park trail. The shocking, seemingly random murder and ensuing six-month search for a suspect stunned the city and inspired fear among women joggers nationwide.

Prosecutors from the Queens District Attorney’s Office built a case against Lewis based on DNA evidence found on Vetrano’s neck, nails and cellphone and two videotaped confessions Lewis gave. But the seven-day trial ended in a hung jury in November after Lewis’ defense team from the Legal Aid Society raised significant doubts about the confessions and the origin of the DNA.

Vetrano was killed while jogging in Spring Creek Park, near her family’s Howard Beach home, in the early evening of Aug. 2, 2016. Her father Phil Vetrano called his friends in the NYPD when Karina did not come home from the short jog. The NYPD immediately organized a search party. It was Phil Vetrano who first found Karina’s battered body lying face-first and mostly naked in the dense brush.

The case went cold until Jan. 31, 2017, when a high-ranking Howard Beach detective remembered seeing a young black man in the neighborhood in May 2016, more than two months before the murder. The off-duty officer called 911 that day in May to report a “suspicious male” with his “hood up” in the neighborhood — the “suspicious male” turned out to be Lewis. Police responding to the 911 call did not arrest Lewis that day, but they did obtain his name and address.

The NYPD acted on the detective’s hunch and visited Lewis to obtain a DNA sample on Feb. 2, 2017. Lewis’ DNA matched DNA found on Vetrano’s neck and cellphone months earlier.

Two days later, Lewis was arrested and detained overnight without sleep in a NYPD precinct station house. The next morning, he gave a videotaped confession to two detectives and another confession to Assistant District Attorneys Brad Leventhal and Michael Curtis who are both retrying the case.

Lewis’ Legal Aid Society defense attorneys cast doubts on the DNA evidence, arguing that the DNA could have been accidentally introduced to the scene by one of the officers or first-responders who participated in the search.

“What happened to Ms. Vetrano was horrible and no individual or their loved ones should go through that,” said defense attorney Robert Moeller during his closing statement in November. “[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.”

The defense team criticized the crime scene investigation as “sloppy,” particularly in the hours between when Phil Vetrano found Karina’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.

Moeller also told the jury that Lewis confessed to the crime the morning after his arrest because he wanted to call his family after his first-ever night away home.

“He knew what they wanted to hear so he told them what they wanted to hear,” Moeller said at the time. “Mr. Lewis had no knowledge of the case other than what was widely circulated.”

During his closing statement, Leventhal condemned the notion that Lewis’ DNA landed on Vetrano’s body and possessions through crime scene contamination as though DNA were “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, referring to Lewis. “Maybe his DNA is special. Maybe his DNA is magnetic. It’s ludicrous.”

Throughout the first trial, Leventhal told the jury that the evidence against Lewis was overwhelming.

“[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 during his opening statement.

The Queens DA’s office declined to comment on a pending case ahead of the retrial.

The Legal Aid Society said Monday that their defense attorneys will continue to “hold the prosecution to their burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt.”

“Last November, the Court declared a mistrial on this case because the prosecution failed to move a deadlocked jury of local Queens residents to convict. Throughout that trial, our defense team continually challenged the accuracy and the reliability of Mr. Lewis’ supposed statements that the police claimed to have collected, the reliability of the DNA evidence gathered at the crime scene, and other major points made by the prosecution,” Legal Aid said in a statement. “All of these are issues that the jury in this forthcoming trial must continue to scrutinize; and we are confident that many of the prosecution’s questions will remain unanswered. As we enter this new trial, we want to remind the public that Mr. Lewis is presumed innocent.”

During the first trial, Justice Michael Aloise prevented the defense from introducing testimony they said would support Lewis’ case. It is unclear whether that testimony will be allowed in the retrial.

Home surveillance cameras show Karina running into the park, but thousands of video clips accumulated from cameras along the Belt Parkway, Howard Beach homes and area businesses fail to capture Lewis in the area, investigators said. Aloise stopped an investigator testifying for the defense from telling that to the jury, however.

Leventhal and Curtis successfully argued to preclude testimony from a Verizon employee who was working on a telephone pole near the crime scene during the time of the murder. The defense attorneys said the worker saw three people enter and exit the park — none of whom were Lewis.

The start of the new trial forces the families of Vetrano and Lewis to relive a nightmare in their search for justice and some semblance of closure.

Vetrano’s parents, siblings and dozens of supporters — often dressed in Karina’s favorite color purple — attended each day of the first trial. Lewis’ mother also attended nearly every day of the trial and could be seen often reading passages from the Bible.