By David Brand and Jonathan Sperling
Three jurors who earlier this month convicted a man of killing Howard Beach resident Karina Vetrano found themselves back in a Queens courtroom on Monday — this time appearing on the witness stand to address a defense motion and claims of juror misconduct.
The defense attorneys representing Chanel Lewis, an East New York resident found guilty of killing Vetrano while she jogged in a park near her home in August 2016, filed a motion last week to set aside the guilty verdict based on a juror’s claims of misconduct by fellow panelists during Lewis’ retrial and deliberations.
After about two and a half hours of testimony by three jurors, including two who disputed the claims of misconduct, Justice Michael Aloise denied the defense motion and set sentencing for Tuesday morning.
Lewis was convicted of first-degree murder, two counts of second-degree murder and sexual abuse, on which the first-degree murder charge was predicated at his retrial April 1, four months after his first trial ended in a hung jury. But the case took another unexpected twist last week when the defense team filed the 330 motion alleging juror misconduct.
One juror, Christopher Gooley, took the witness stand with his attorney seated next to him to reiterate the claims outlined in his affidavit. Gooley was identified as Juror A in the defense motion entered into court records.
Gooley alleged that a woman panelist — identified as “Juror 9” in Monday’s court proceedings based on her position in the jury box during the trial — told him she had been raped and thus had an expert perspective on the sex abuse charge. Another male juror, “Juror 3,” used his experience serving on the jury panel at a rape trial to inform his thinking in this case, Gooley said. Both Juror 9 and 3 used that information to pressure other jurors to find Lewis guilty for sex abuse even though some doubted the prosecution’s case, Gooley said.
“You’re a man, you wouldn’t understand,” Juror 9 told Gooley, according to the affidavit, adding that the vagina acts “like a sponge or vacuum” and “had absorbed the male DNA.”
During his testimony Monday, Gooley remained consistent when elaborating the claims set forth in his affidavit. Defense attorney Jenny Cheung was prevented from asking him numerous questions about deliberations, however. Aloise sustained more than a dozen objections from lead prosecutor Brad Leventhal.
On cross examination, Leventhal honed in on the claims that Juror 9 said she was a rape survivor.
“You’re as certain of those statements as everything you’re testifying about today?” Leventhal asked.
“I am,” Gooley responded.
Juror 9 took the stand to deny Gooley’s account, continuing the bizarre he-said/she-said claims about discussions of rape contained in the affidavit.
Leventhal asked Juror 9 if she was aware of the claim that she said she was a victim of rape. Juror 9 said she was aware because prosecutors had read Gooley’s affidavit to her over the phone
“I had to laugh,” Juror 9 said. “It was so outrageous. I never said that. I’ve never been a rape victim.”
Gooley also alleged that the jury foreperson, “Juror 1” said he had his “mind made up” on the second day of trial in violation of Aloise’s directions not to talk about proceedings until after deliberations. In addition, Gooley said Juror 1 tore up a note asking the judge how long they would have to remain at the courthouse the night of deliberations.
Juror 1 did not testify at Monday’s hearing.
Vetrano, 30, was brutally attacked and killed when she went running in Spring Creek Park near her Howard Beach home in August 2016. Vetrano fought ferociously before she died of strangulation. Her murder prompted a massive NYPD investigation and garnered international attention. The case went cold for six months before police arrested Lewis based on DNA evidence in February 2017. Lewis’ first trial ended in a split jury in November 2018.
Since the retrial ended, Gooley has spoken with a few media outlets — including an exclusive interview with the Eagle the day after the verdict — and outlined some of the allegations included in his affidavit, but he asked to remain anonymous each time he granted an interview.
“I did not want my name published at all,” Gooley said during redirect examination by defense attorney Jenny Cheung. “All the news [publications] respected my decision, including the Queens Eagle.”
Nevertheless, lead prosecutor Brad Leventhal set out to present Gooley, who works in the theater industry, as an attention-thirsty actor eager for his “15 minutes of fame.”
“You’re in the theater industry and that’s the manner in which you earn your living,” Leventhal said during cross-examination. “Is it fair to say, and no disrespect meant, that publicity for an actor would be good?”
“He doesn’t have to answer that,” Aloise said after the defense team objected.
Leventhal asked Gooley if he told other jurors “I’ll see you on ‘Good Morning America.’”
Gooley said he was joking and that panelists exchanged several wisecracks as they left the courthouse.
Leventhal also suggested that Gooley was afraid of backlash from peers in the theater industry.
“You were concerned that, by your verdict, you might be considered a racist,” Leventhal said. “The theater community in which you make your living is a rather liberal community.”
After Gooley signed his sworn affidavit with the Legal Aid defense team, he met with Queens prosecutors — including Executive Assistant District Attorney Bob Masters and ADA Michael Curtis who has worked the Lewis case since February 2017 — at Carle Place Diner in Mineola, Long Island (Gooley ordered a water, diet Coke and toast with butter. The Queens DA’s office picked up the tab).
There, Gooley told the prosecutors that the defense team had mused that Aloise would “throw the motion out the window” like he had done with other motions throughout the case, Leventhal said.
Gooley disputed the exact wording but said that Legal Aid attorneys did say they expected Aloise to deny the motion without calling a hearing.
Additional reporting by Victoria Merlino