By David Brand and Jonathan Sperling
A 12-person jury of Queens residents — six men and six women — heard opening statements Monday in the retrial of Chanel Lewis, the man accused of killing Karina Vetrano as she jogged near her Howard Beach home on Aug. 2, 2016. Lewis’ first trial ended in a split jury in November 2018.
Lewis, 22, is charged with second-degree murder, first-degree murder and aggravated sexual abuse — on which the first-degree murder charge is predicated — for allegedly attacking Vetrano during a random encounter on a secluded trail in Spring Creek Park.
The key figures remain the same for the retrial: Assistant District Attorneys Brad Leventhal and Michael Curtis are prosecuting the case and Justice Michael Aloise continues to stand and pace behind the bench, again wearing a purple tie.
Defense attorney Jenny Cheung sat beside Lewis, with Robert Moeller and Julia Burke completing the Legal Aid Society defense team.
The demographics of the 12-person jury and the three juror alternates have changed significantly, however. The jurors are much older on average than in the first trial, where the majority of jurors seemed younger than 40. The jury is also majority white this time around, compared to just a handful of white jurors last time.
The foreman, who scowled throughout opening statements, is a retired law enforcement officer, according to a person familiar with jury selection.
“I haven’t been in court but I’ve heard it looks like they can be fair,” Karina Vetrano’s father Phil Vetrano, who testified at the first trial about finding his daughter’s body, wrote on his GoFundMe page Monday morning. “We were blindsided the last time. How neiva [sic] to think the evidence is all you need.”
Vetrano’s mother Cathie Vetrano will likely testify for the first time this week, Leventhal said.
Leventhal spoke for roughly 1 hour and 50 minutes as he laid out the case against Lewis, which is based on confessions that Lewis gave detectives and prosecutors and DNA evidence found on Vetrano’s neck, nails and cellphone. Leventhal was less dramatic than during his opening and closing statements in the first trial when he pantomimed punches and dropped to the floor to simulate the killing.
After getting home from work, Vetrano headed into Spring Creek Park for a short run that early August evening, he told the jurors.
“It was a run from which she’d never return,” Leventhal said before describing how a “young, attractive, vibrant, full of life young lady was viciously and savagely attacked.”
Lewis, dressed in a charcoal three-piece suit and black bow tie, leaned forward as Leventhal walked across the courtroom and pointed to him.
“He attacked her, pummeled her, punched her,” Leventhal said. “Breaking, cracking, fracturing her front teeth” while “placing his knees like a catcher on her chest.
Leventhal explained that Vetrano’s clothing was in disarray and accused Lewis of sexually abusing Vetrano, motivated by lust and his own “sexual gratification.”
Leventhal also addressed issues raised by the defense during the first trial, including crime scene contamination and the chain of custody of evidence removed from the crime scene. During the first trial, the defense cast doubt on the trace amount of DNA evidence found on Vetrano’s body and cellphone and described how the DNA could have been introduced by one of the dozens of cops and other first-responders who arrived at the scene.
Cheung, a DNA expert, delivered the opening statement for the defense and urged jurors to keep an open mind. Cheung asked them to scrutinize the prosecution’s case, from the crime scene investigation to the circumstances of Lewis’ two videotaped confessions.
“Tunnel vision clouds judgement,” she said, adding that the prosecutors were trying to “put a square peg in a round hole” to fit a narrative.
The prosecution’s case relied on “a series of assumptions and guesses” made at the crime scene, she continued. Investigators immediately saw the state of Vetrano’s clothing — her sports bra was pulled below her breasts and her running shorts were pulled off one leg — and determined that she had been sexually abused by a lone suspect, she said.
“Their decisions and actions affected everyone down the chain,” Cheung said. “The narrative generated on the first night of this case dictated their actions.”