Sentencing delayed in Vetrano murder case

A screenshot of Lewis giving a confession to prosecutor the morning after his arrest. Image via video by the Queens DA’s Office

A screenshot of Lewis giving a confession to prosecutor the morning after his arrest. Image via video by the Queens DA’s Office

By David Brand

The case of the man convicted of killing Karina Vetrano took an unexpected turn on Wednesday, the day sentencing was scheduled, after the defense and prosecution both filed motions related to alleged jury misconduct.

Justice Michael Aloise scheduled a hearing to address the motions for Monday, April 22.

Chanel Lewis, 22, was found 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.

The jury determined that Lewis brutally attacked Vetrano while she jogged in Spring Creek Park in August 2016. Prosecutors said Vetrano fought ferociously as Lewis strangled her to death before dragging her into the weeds along the trail. The lead prosecutor said it was a random encounter and a “crime of opportunity” and built the case against Lewis based on videotaped confessions that Lewis gave police and prosecutors and DNA evidence found on the back of Vetrano’s neck, nails and cellphone.

At least one juror said there were issues with the trial and deliberation, however. The juror, whose name and gender were not shared in court Wednesday, claimed that other jurors engaged in misconduct, Lewis’ attorneys said in court. The Legal Aid defense team obtained a signed affidavit from the juror and filed a 330 motion Monday to review “the allegations of juror misconduct,” they said in court. A 330 motion is a motion to alter a verdict based on improprieties during the trial and deliberations, including juror misconduct.

In response, the prosecution filed signed affidavits from three other jurors who they said countered claims of misconduct.

“The other jurors specifically deny and controvert every allegation” of misconduct, lead prosecutor Brad Leventhal told the court.

Nevertheless, Leventhal argued in favor of the Monday hearing.

“The hearing should be held so the court and the public can see that this was a good and valid verdict,” Leventhal said.

Aloise agreed and suggested that sentencing will take place on Tuesday, April 23 if the motions are resolved Monday. Aloise, who again wore a purple tie (Vetrano’s favorite color), also forbade the prosecution and defense from sharing the redacted motions and from discussing their contents with the media.

The Queens District Attorney’s Office and the Legal Aid Society declined to comment on the motions in light of the judge’s directive.

Dozens of people filled the courtroom to support both the Vetrano and the Lewis family ahead of what they expected would be sentencing. Members of the Vetrano family were set to read victim impact statements and Lewis himself was likely to address the court for the first time. Those statements have been delayed until at least next week.

Lewis family supporters chanted “Justice for Chanel” as they left the courtroom.

“Shut them up,” Aloise shouted. The supporters took their demonstration to the sidewalk outside the courthouse, where they denounced what they said were injustices during the investigation and trial.  

The juror misconduct allegations may relate to information that an anonymous juror shared with the Eagle on April 2. The juror reached out the Eagle and described how at least one juror relied on his past experience serving on the jury at a rape trial to draw conclusions about the sex abuse charge against Lewis.

The juror said he had reservations about the sexual abuse charge and thus the first-degree murder charge.

Ultimately, however, he joined the 11 other jurors in deciding to convict Lewis in all four counts.

The case has received international attention since Vetrano was killed in August 2016. After Vetrano did not return from the evening jog, her father Phil, with whom she lived, notified a friend. The friend, a high-ranking NYPD official, organized a large-scale search party in Spring Creek 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.

Cover photo by Uli Seit, Pool