The man convicted of murdering Karina Vetrano faces sentencing as questions linger

Chanel Lewis (left) was convicted of first-degree murder earlier this month. He sits with his defense attorneys during his first trial in November 2018. Pool photo by Curtis Means, file

Chanel Lewis (left) was convicted of first-degree murder earlier this month. He sits with his defense attorneys during his first trial in November 2018. Pool photo by Curtis Means, file

By David Brand

The 22-year-old man convicted of killing Howard Beach resident Karina Vetrano faces sentencing Wednesday, more than two and a half years after Vetrano’s body was found bruised and beaten in the weeds near her home in August 2016. The high-profile case has prompted questions about police practices and courtroom procedures, which have only intensified in the wake of the verdict.

A Queens jury found Chanel Lewis guilty of first-degree murder, two counts of second-degree murder and sexual abuse — on which the first-degree murder charge was predicated — after about five hours of deliberations on April 1, the same night that deliberations began. Vetrano’s family, friends and supporters celebrated the guilty verdict with raucous cheers.

“Justice is served,” said lead prosecutor Brad Leventhal as he left the courtroom that night. Leventhal had convinced the jury that Lewis randomly encountered Vetrano in Spring Creek Park and attacked her because he was angry about something that took place at his home earlier in the day. Vetrano fought relentlessly during the brutal attack before dying of strangulation.

It was a “crime of opportunity” Leventhal told jurors while building a case based on two videotaped confessions that Lewis gave police and prosecutors as well as DNA evidence found on Vetrano’s neck, nails and phone.

The retrial verdict came more than four months after Lewis’ first trial ended in a hung jury and closes one chapter in the case. But the next chapter is likely just beginning, as Lewis’ Legal Aid defense team, activists and legal analysts question the initial murder investigation and possible irregularities with the jury’s deliberations, setting the stage for an appeal.

When Justice Michael Aloise delivers the sentence, the Queens Supreme Courtroom will be filled with relieved Vetrano family supporters as well as angry community members who contend that the murder investigation was marred by racial bias and that the Queens District Attorney’s office violated discovery law by not turning over several pieces of information to the defense team. A letter by an anonymous person claiming to be an NYPD officer familiar with the early days of the case revealed new information related to the investigation

In particular, attorneys and court observers question what first motivated the NYPD to search for suspects described as “two jacked up white guys from Howard Beach” — a description of the initial suspects targeted in the investigation, according to the anonymous letter and independently verified by The New York Times. Lewis is black.

“He was railroaded the whole time,” said Crisis Action Center Director Rev. Kevin McCall, referring to Lewis. “We're calling for justice for him. He wasn’t given a fair trial.”

McCall has organized a demonstration outside the courthouse for the morning of the sentencing.

“We’re protesting the injustice in the system,” he said. “It was an injustice all the way from the beginning to the end.”

The Legal Aid Society wrote a letter to the City Council on Monday denouncing the race-based DNA dragnet that the NYPD employed during the investigation, which resulted in officers obtaining DNA samples from 360 black men in and around Howard Beach.

“The reason? Because they were black and lived near Howard Beach,” Legal Aid wrote. “Once taken, these DNA samples were not simply compared to that single case: they were entered into a vast DNA databank, which contains nearly 70,000 New Yorkers.”

A juror who reached out to the Eagle further fueled controversy and inspired an editorial by the Daily News when he explained that he felt pressured by the court and his fellow jurors to arrive at a guilty verdict, even though he doubted the sex abuse charge.

“The judge wanted it done last night,” the juror said the day after convicting Lewis. “It was crazy how fast it went.”

The juror also said that one of his fellow jurors served on another jury during a rape case and used that knowledge to persuade his peers. He added that he and a few other jurors wanted to review the videotaped confessions that Lewis gave to police and prosecutors the morning after his arrest in February 2017, but they were prevented by technological problems at the courthouse.

“Shit happens, but really?” the juror said. “We were told we can view any evidence and somehow your computers break.”

The Daily News referred to the tech problem as a “criminal glitch” in an editorial earlier this month.

“Hiccups happen,” the News editorial board wrote. “They should never, ever, ever, ever prevent the members of a jury from reviewing vital evidence in a trial.”

The case received international attention after Vetrano was found murdered in a thicket along a trail in Spring Creek Park on Aug. 2, 2016. Vetrano’s father Phil, with whom she lived, notified a friend that Karina did not return from her jog and the friend, a high-ranking NYPD official, organized a large-scale search party in the park.

Phil Vetrano ultimately found Karina’s bruised body laying in the weeds a few yards away from the trail. Her sports bra was pulled below her breasts and her shorts were pulled off one leg. The murder prompted the NYPD to create a task force of about 100 officers who followed leads and conducted a DNA dragnet of black men in the area in search of suspect.

The case went cold until late-January 2017, six months after the murder, when a lieutenant overseeing the investigation recalled seeing Lewis in Howard Beach in May 2016, two months before the murder. Lt. John Russo, a Howard Beach resident, followed Lewis for roughly an hour that day before calling 911 to report a “suspicious male” with his hood up. The responding officers stop-and-frisked Lewis and obtained his name and address but did not make an arrest. The 911 call and stop have been criticized as examples of racial profiling.

Nevertheless, detectives acting on Russo’s hunch used the name and address obtained from the stop-and-frisk to visit Lewis at his home in East New York in February 2017. Lewis, then 20, voluntarily submitted a DNA sample to detectives. Lewis’ DNA matched trace DNA found on the back of Vetrano’s neck and cellphone and in a mixture of DNA on two fingernails. Detectives arrested Lewis on Feb. 4, 2017.

Lewis’ first trial ended in a split jury after about 12 hours of deliberations over two days in November. The defense cast doubt on the origin of the DNA found on Vetrano’s neck, nails and cellphone, explaining that it could have been accidentally transferred to the site by one of the scores of police officers and first-responders at the chaotic scene (the defense called it a “sloppy” crime scene).  They also argued that the two confessions Lewis gave to prosecutors and police were coerced.

The second time around, the prosecution convinced the jury that Lewis was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. He faces up to life in prison.