By David Brand
Jury selection began Tuesday for the retrial of Chanel Lewis, the man accused of killing Karina Vetrano as she jogged near her Howard Beach home in August 2016 — but no jurors were selected on day one.
More than 100 potential jurors from across Queens filed into the Queens Criminal Courthouse’s cavernous ceremonial courtroom, where Justice Michael Aloise said the entire trial would take place. One man carried a copy of the New York Post, while the woman sitting next to him held a book titled “Witches, Sluts and Feminists.”
Aloise advised the jury pool that the high-profile murder case had “received a bit of notoriety.”
“It’s taken on many names — the Howard Beach case, the jogger case,” he said, adding that knowing about the case would not disqualify someone from serving as an impartial juror.
Lewis is charged with first-degree murder, two counts of second-degree murder and aggravated sexual abuse — on which the first-degree murder charge is based — for allegedly strangling Vetrano to death after randomly encountering her during her jog through Spring Creek Park.
Assistant District Attorneys Brad Leventhal and Michael Curtis decided to drop nine other counts from the original indictment. They also dropped those charges before jurors deliberated in the November trial.
That first trial lasted seven days and ultimately ended with a split jury when jurors told Aloise they were “hopelessly deadlocked” after 13 hours of deliberations.
The prosecutors built their case around trace DNA evidence found on Vetrano’s body and her cellphone, cell tower pings that suggested Lewis could have been in the vicinity of the crime scene a few hours before the murder and two videotaped confessions that Lewis gave detectives and ADAs. Leventhal said he would call additional witnesses to testify during this trial.
The defense team cast enough doubt on the prosecution’s November case to reportedly persuade five of the 12 jurors not to find Lewis guilty.
Aloise said that this time around, the trial would likely last between three and three-and-a-half weeks. Despite the time commitment, serving as a juror is a privilege, he told the pool.
“Those of you selected will agree with me — it happens every case,” Aloise said.
Vetrano’s mother, sister and a handful of supporters sat in the back of courtroom behind the jury pool. Her father Phil Vetrano did not appear in court because he will testify during the trial. In November, Vetrano cried when he described the moment he found his daughter’s body in the park.
Before the jury pool entered the courtroom, Aloise, Lewis, his Legal Aid Society defense attorneys and the two prosecutors discussed two recent incidents in Lewis’ life — a move to a Long Island jail and an attack by another inmate.
Lewis was transferred from a Rikers Island jail to a facility in Riverhead in Suffolk County for “abusing” his phone privileges by calling 311 multiple times a day, Aloise said. Aloise agreed to sign a document transferring Lewis back to a city jail if he agreed to stop calling 311 “excessively.”
“If you start abusing your privileges again, you’ll be sent back to Riverhead,” he said, adding that Lewis should only call 311 to report “legitimate complaints.”
Lewis said he understood and agreed not to call 311.
Leventhal also said he heard that Lewis had been involved in an “altercation” at the jail but said he likely would not bring this up during cross-examination if Lewis testified in his own defense. Lewis did not take the stand in the first trial.
Defense attorney Robert Moeller clarified that Lewis was assaulted by another detainee who smashed him in the back of the head. Lewis was taken to a hospital where he received staples to close the head wound, Moeller said.