Judge denies defense motions after anonymous letter rocks Vetrano trial

Chanel Lewis (right) glances into the gallery during opening statements in his murder retrial March 18. Lewis is charged with first-degree murder for allegedly killing Karina Vetrano near her Howard Beach home. Pool photo by Uli Seit

Chanel Lewis (right) glances into the gallery during opening statements in his murder retrial March 18. Lewis is charged with first-degree murder for allegedly killing Karina Vetrano near her Howard Beach home. Pool photo by Uli Seit

By David Brand

A Queens judge denied two defense motions Monday that would have seriously disrupted the retrial of Chanel Lewis, the man accused of killing Howard Beach resident Karina Vetrano as she jogged near her home.

The motions were filed in direct response to a detailed letter from an anonymous person claiming to be an NYPD officer who said prosecutors withheld evidence favorable to Lewis, including the existence of other suspects.

Defense attorney Julia Burke from the Legal Aid Society read the motions to reopen suppression hearings and to request a Brady hearing before jurors entered the courtroom for closing arguments. Burke also moved for a mistrial.

Justice Michael Aloise denied each motion with top officials from the District Attorney’s office sitting in the first row of court, in front of the Vetrano family and scores of their supporters.   

The defense team and press received a detailed letter about the early days of investigation from an anonymous person claiming to be a police officer on Thursday night.

The letter, first reported by the Daily News on Friday, states that the NYPD initially described suspects in the Aug. 2, 2016 murder as “two jacked up white guys from Howard Beach.” A top official instructed officers to swab every white man in Howard Beach, the letter states.

On the 13th day of the investigation, however, phenotyping of some of the DNA found at the scene indicated that the suspect may have been black or African American, the letter continues. At that point, NYPD Chief of Detectives Robert Boyce instructed cops to obtain DNA swabs from all black men arrested in the area, according to the letter. Lewis, who was arrested six months after the murder, is black but was never arrested before.

Prosecutors did not disclose to the defense that the NYPD had obtained DNA from at least 360 black men, which they stored in a database, according to the letter. The letter included four pages with information about the men included in the database.

“You are defending Mr. Chanel Lewis in which you do not have full disclosure of information,” the letter states.

Burke told Aloise on Monday that the prosecution did not turn over information about “the existence of potential alternative suspects.”

She requested a hearing to determine “whether any additional Brady information” had been withheld. The Supreme Court ruling Brady v. Maryland determined that prosecutors must share evidence favorable to the defendant with defense counsel.

Burke questioned where the database was from, which personnel knew about it, why the NYPD reversed its directive to search for “two jacked up white” men and what became of the directive to swab all white men in Howard Beach. She also requested witness statements referred to in the letter that indicate Mr. Lewis was not the perpetrator.

The detectives who got the DNA sample from Lewis told another officer that Lewis was “too dimwitted and puny” to kill Vetrano, the letter stated. The defense did not receive this information.

Burke filed the motion to reopen hearings in order to cross-examine the detectives and other witnesses named in the letter.

Tina Luongo, the attorney-in-charge of Legal Aid’s Criminal Defense Practice, said the DNA sweep represented a “race-biased dragnet” and that the prosecution had violated Brady rules.

“We received troubling and reliable information indicating that the police withheld critical Brady information about other potential suspects, which was never turned over to the defense,” Luongo said in a statement. “Moreover, we learned that the police approached our Mr. Lewis to obtain a DNA swab as part of a race-biased dragnet, which involved the swabbing of over 360 African-American men in Howard Beach and other neighboring sections of Brooklyn and Queens.”

Assistant District Attorney Brad Leventhal, the lead prosecutor, condemned the anonymous letter and told the court it contained no new information or suggested any Brady violation.

“The anonymous letter, the author of which didn’t have the courage to ascribe a name to [was] delivered to the defense and the Daily News,” but not to the prosecution, Leventhal said, adding that the letter contained “unsupported, unsubstantiated claims” and was provided “to counsel and press in the 11th hour trying to derail the trial.”

“The reliability of the letter can never be certified by this court,” he continued.

Leventhal said that “people of all backgrounds” and people of “all colors and nationalities” were investigated as suspects.

Lewis was arrested on Feb 4. 2017 after giving detectives a voluntary DNA sample two days earlier. NYPD Lieutenant John Russo, who lived in Howard Beach and oversaw the investigation, remembered seeing Lewis walking in the neighborhood in May 2016, two months before Vetrano was killed. On that day, Russo followed Lewis and called 911 to report a “suspicious male.”

Responding officers stop-and-frisked Lewis and took his name and address, but did not make an arrest. Detectives working on Russo’s hunch months later found the name and address and visited Lewis at his East New York home to obtain a DNA sample.

Lewis’ DNA matched DNA found on the back of Vetrano’s neck and cellphone as well as in a mixture on her fingernails.

The defense team has depicted the crime scene as contaminated by dozens of officers who did not follow proper crime scene procedure. The first trial ended in a split jury in November.

The author of the letter suggested that this was indeed possible and said Lewis’ DNA could have ended up at the scene by “secondary transfer” or that Vetrano could have encountered Lewis’ DNA by chance earlier in the day.

Leventhal said the claim demonstrates the “agenda” of the letter’s author.