By David Brand
A Queens jury found defendant Chanel Lewis guilty of murdering Howard Beach resident Karina Vetrano in August 2016 after roughly five hours of deliberations Monday night, prompting cheers from Vetrano family members and supporters who attended each day of the retrial and original trial last year.
The 12-person jury determined at about 9:30 p.m. that Lewis, 22, attacked Vetrano while she jogged along a secluded trail near her Howard Beach home on Aug. 2, 2016. Prosecutors called the murder a random “crime of opportunity.”
Prosecutors and the Vetrano family hailed the verdict in the high-profile murder case, but attorneys and activists said myriad questions remain about the conduct of the investigation, beginning with crime scene procedures, the stop-and-frisk of Lewis that led to his arrest eight months later and the alleged suppression of evidence in violation of discovery laws.
Vetrano’s body was covered in bruises and abrasions and she suffered two broken teeth during the extremely violent attack. A medical examiner determined that she died from strangulation. Her sports bra was pulled down, exposing her breasts, and her running shorts were pulled from one leg. She was also missing a shoe. The shocking crime attracted international attention and stoked fears about random acts of violence against women joggers.
Lewis, of East New York, was convicted of first-degree murder, two counts of second-degree murder and aggravated sexual abuse, on which the first-degree murder charge was predicated. Vetrano’s family and friends shouted “Victory” as they left the courtroom.
“Jubilation. Justice has been served,” said Karina’s father Phil Vetrano as he walked out of court. Vetrano testified at both the trial and retrial about finding Karina’s body during a large-scale police investigation hours after she was killed.
“Justice has been served,” echoed Assistant District Attorney Brad Leventhal, the lead prosecutor.
Lewis’ family declined to comment.
No eyewitnesses came forward during the six-month investigation into Vetrano’s murder, which featured a task force of about 100 NYPD officers. But prosecutors said trace DNA found on Vetrano’s neck, cellphone and fingernails that matched Lewis’ DNA, as well as two confessions that Lewis gave detectives and prosecutors the morning after his arrest in February 2017 were enough evidence to convict him. Leventhal said Lewis inserted his fingers into Vetrano’s vagina and anus for “sexual gratification,” justifying the first-degree murder charge.
The prosecution also introduced cellphone location information — pings from a cell tower on Cross Bay Boulevard — that suggested Lewis was in Howard Beach a few hours before the murder.
“This was a horrifying case,” said Chief Assistant District Attorney John Ryan in a statement. “Ms. Vetrano’s death was brutal. She was pulled from a park pathway, sexually assaulted and in her last moments of life she gasped for air as the defendant’s hands tightened around her neck.”
The defense team from The Legal Aid Society countered that the confessions were coerced — Lewis gave inconsistent statements to police and prosecutors after spending the night at a Queens police precinct — and that Lewis’ DNA could have been accidentally transferred to the scene by one of the scores of police officers and other first responders who flooded the area on Aug. 2, 2016 to conduct the large-scale investigation (Phil Vetrano initiated the investigation after calling his friend, a high-ranking NYPD official, to report that Karina had not returned home from her early evening jog). The defense also said the cell tower pings demonstrated little of substance.
Lewis’ first trial ended in a split jury in November. His retrial began March 18 and was roiled Friday night and through the weekend after an anonymous person claiming to be an NYPD Officer sent a letter to Legal Aid defense attorneys and the press alleging that the prosecution withheld evidence favorable to Lewis. The New York Times independently confirmed several of the allegations in the letter.
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 of information about some of the men who were included in the database.
The letter also said that the NYPD initially described the murder suspects as “two jacked up white guys from Howard Beach” and that detectives who obtained the DNA sample from Lewis said Lewis was “to (sic) puny and dimwitted” to have committed the murder. None of the evidence about alternate suspects or officer reports was turned over to the defense team.
“You are defending Mr. Chanel Lewis in which you do not have full disclosure of information,” the letter states.
Defense attorney Julia Burke said the information contained in the letter, first reported by the Daily News, and other elements of the trial provided significant grounds for appeal.
“We’re disappointed in the outcome and we believe Mr. Lewis has a lot of strong appeal issues, such as the denial of suppression and Brady hearings; late discovery, like in the case of the medical record disclosure in the middle of a retrial; and issues related to Mr. Lewis’ initial stop,” Burke told the Eagle after the trial.
Judge Michael Aloise denied a defense motion to re-open suppression hearings in light of the information contained in the letter and a defense motion to hold a Brady hearing to determine whether additional information had been withheld. The Supreme Court ruling Brady v. Maryland determined that prosecutors must share evidence favorable to the defendant with defense counsel.
The prosecution also introduced new medical records related to a hand injury for which Lewis received treatment on the same night of Vetrano’s murder. The prosecution did not introduce that evidence in the first trial.
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 followed Russo’s hunch months later, found the name and address and visited Lewis at his East New York home to obtain a DNA sample.
A male juror who spoke on condition of anonymity after the trial ended told the Eagle and other reporters that Russo’s hourlong pursuit of Lewis through Howard Beach reminded him of George Zimmerman following Trayvon Martin before shooting and killing Martin in a Florida neighborhood.
Nevertheless, the juror said that he and the other 11 jurors were convinced that Lewis killed Vetrano. He and two others were not initially convinced that Lewis sexually abused her, however.
Eventually, the other jurors convinced the three reluctant jurors to find Lewis guilty on all four charges against him.
The defense team frequently said in the trial and retrial that the prosecutors were trying to “put a square peg in a round hole” to fit a narrative of a lone killer that was developed early on in the investigation. “Tunnel vision clouds judgement,” said defense attorney Jenny Cheung during her opening statement last month.
Legal Aid said it would appeal the verdict.
“We wholeheartedly disagree with Judge Aloise’s precipitous rejection of our request for a hearing to investigate potential Brady violations by the New York City Police Department and the Queens County District Attorney’s Office that could have well changed the outcome of the case,” Legal Aid said in a statement. “Exculpatory information was reported and confirmed that was never revealed to the defense and that could have exonerated Mr. Lewis, yet the court declined even to allow exploration of the issue. This is a complete miscarriage of justice. Judge Aloise also kept jurors for well over 12 hours — an unprecedented action — to extract a verdict. Our client did not receive a fair trial. We will appeal immediately to a court that can afford Mr. Lewis the fair review he has thus far been denied.”