EXCLUSIVE: 'It was crazy how fast it went,' Vetrano trial juror tells Eagle

Chanel Lewis sits in the courtroom during his November trial, which ended in a split jury. Eagle court sketch by Alba Acevedo

Chanel Lewis sits in the courtroom during his November trial, which ended in a split jury. Eagle court sketch by Alba Acevedo

By David Brand

A male juror in the retrial of the East New York man convicted of killing Karina Vetrano told the Eagle that the jury’s opinion on the case seemed to initially split along racial lines and that he believed Judge Michael Aloise wanted jurors to arrive at a verdict Monday night, the same day deliberations began.

The juror, who asked to remain anonymous because he was concerned about harassment, reached out to the Eagle on Tuesday, hours after the jury convicted Chanel Lewis of first-degree murder, two counts of second-degree murder and aggravated sexual abuse. It took jurors about five hours of deliberations to find Lewis guilty.

The juror said he still thought Lewis committed the murder but had misgivings about the investigation and the sex abuse charge on which the first-degree murder charge was predicated.

“So, did he murder her? He probably did,” he said. “But if this comes out in 10-30 years that we sent an innocent man to jail, especially a person of color, I would feel awful. That’s my only worry.”

He said he was uncomfortable with how quickly the deliberations went.

“The judge wanted it done last night,” the juror said, adding that Aloise was respectful of the jury throughout the trial. “It was crazy how fast it went.”

The juror said Aloise and court staff did not do anything to explicitly encourage the jury to rush a verdict, but that other jurors began pressuring him to come around on the sex abuse charge because they wanted to go home.

“Let’s be real,” the juror said. “12 hours inside that building. We were told to take as long as we want. We were told the building closes at 9:45 but we can stay as long as we want.”  

The juror told the Eagle 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, but they were prevented by technological problems at the courthouse.

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

Lewis was convicted Monday of killing Vetrano, 30, while she ran along a weedy trail in Spring Creek Park, near her home in Howard Beach on Aug. 2, 2016. Vetrano’s father Phil, with whom she lived, notified a friend that Karina did not return from her jog. The friend, a high-ranking NYPD official, organized a large-scale search party in the park. Phil Vetrano ultimately found Karina’s body covered with bruises and abrasions splayed in the weeds. Her sports bra was pulled below her breasts and her shorts were pulled off one leg.

The shocking murder generated international attention and prompted the NYPD to create a task force of about 100 officers to locate suspects, an initiative that featured a DNA dragnet of black men in the area. By January 2017, the NYPD still had not made an arrest until a high-ranking officer recalled seeing Lewis in the neighborhood in May 2016, two months before the murder. He followed Lewis for close to an hour that day before calling 911 to report a “suspicious male” with his hood up. Responding officers stop-and-frisked Lewis but did not make an arrest. They did, however, obtain his name and address, which detectives used 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 DNA found at the crime scene and 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 and argued that two confessions Lewis gave to prosecutors and police were coerced. That jury sent a note to Aloise saying they were “hopelessly deadlocked.” Aloise did not issue an Allen charge directing them to resume deliberations and faced criticism from the media and court watchers. An Allen charge is a routine and official directive from judge to jury to continue deliberating if a jury reports that it is deadlocked.

The Eagle confirmed the juror’s identity by speaking with him through video chat after exchanging messages via social media.

The juror, who is white, said the other white jurors were set to convict Lewis, who is black, as soon as deliberations began.

“This may come as a shock but I was the only white person that didn’t rush to find him guilty,” the juror told the Eagle. “I don’t want to say it was because he was black. But that might have been a factor but I can’t read into people’s heads.”

The foreman, who told ABC7 that the case was a “slam dunk,” seemed the most eager to leave as deliberations stretched into the night with no end in sight, the juror said.

The juror said he did not like the foreman speaking to the press on behalf of the jury.

“I just don’t appreciate it when someone speaks for the jury,” he said, referring to the foreman. “He was a nice guy, but he wanted out.”

“[He] was also interesting,” the juror continued. “He kept saying ‘I want to do the right thing.’ Funny how you want to do the right thing but are very quick to get out.”

The juror said he could tell that the foreman had his mind made up on the case because he nodded when Assistant District Attorney Brad Leventhal spoke throughout the trial.

“It was very clear that he was going to put in a guilty verdict almost immediately,” the juror said.

The juror described some issues he still had with the verdict, specifically about the sex abuse charge. He said prosecutors barely addressed the sex abuse charge and did not build a compelling case.

Another juror who had served on a rape case in the past eventually convinced him that “all the clear signs on Karina’s body” pointed to sexual abuse, however, the juror said.

The juror said he and the other jurors learned about the existence of a letter from an anonymous person claiming to be an NYPD officer who stated that information was withheld from the defense team immediately after the trial ended.

“I found out about the note after we gave our verdict,” he said. “I kinda just sank into a chair and shook my head looking at everyone. And kinda let out a sigh and said, ‘You gotta be fucking kidding me.’”

On Monday morning, the defense team filed a motion to re-open suppression hearings and a motion to review material that may have been withheld from the defense in violation of discovery law. The defense also moved for a mistrial.

Aloise denied each motion.