Cheers and applause filled the courtroom when verdict read that Chanel Lewis was the guilty of the murder of Karina Vetrano. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t without controversy.
Lewis, 22, was accused of sexually assaulting and strangling Vetrano as she jogged near her Howard Beach home on Aug. 2, 2016. Hours after the assault, Phil Vetrano—Karina’s father—found her body in Spring Creek Park. Vetrano’s teeth were broken.
Lewis’ first trial in November ended with a hung jury. After the new verdict, in which he was found guilty on 16 counts after five hours of jury deliberation, Lewis faces up to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Lawyers for The Legal Aid Society, who represented Lewis, said they’ll file an appeal, but not before verbally blasting the decision made by the jury and the process of the trial.
“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,” read The Legal Aid Society’s statement to the AmNews. “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.”
At the end of last week, Lewis’ defense said they received an anonymous three-page letter stating that the New York Police Department conducted a “racialized” search after DNA phenotype test showed that the material collected from the crime scene was from a Black male. This allegedly led then-Chief of Detectives Robert Boyce to take the DNA of all Black men arrested in Queens and Brooklyn and swab anyone who had been arrested in Howard Beach. This led to more than 360 Black men being swabbed for DNA. Police arrested Lewis based on an alleged DNA match, but experts have questioned whether or not it was conclusive. Lewis was already in police records for three summonses in 2013 involving a combination of public urination and breaking park rules.
As a result, Lewis’ defense tried to submit a motion seeking a hearing to address the prosecution’s failure to disclose this evidence and a motion to re-open the pre-trial suppression hearing but were denied by Judge Michael B. Aloise.
Lewis’ defense also noted that the police held Lewis captive for 12 hours before he confessed to the crime—twice changing the details each time. The confessions were videotaped, the jury asked to see them, but they didn’t end up viewing them. They were told there was a technical problem with the audio/visual equipment in the courtroom.
A juror told the New York Post that they felt pressured to convict Lewis, but never cited why.
“This was a horrifying case,” said Ryan in a statement. “A vibrant, young woman’s life came to an abrupt and violent end. Ms. Vetrano’s death was brutal.”
New York Police Department Lt. John Russo—a Howard Beach resident—gave the police a lead after months of no progress. He told the court that he spotted a young Black man in the neighborhood two months before the murder, tailed him for suspicious activity and called 911. This led to a stop-and-frisk of Lewis who, after telling the officers he was looking for a place to eat, was driven to a McDonald’s in the Rockaways. Lewis lives in East New York.
Police initially told reporters that based on Russo’s tip they had obtained a 911 call from the day after the murder which called Lewis out by name and said he was walking around the neighborhood with a crowbar.
New York State Assemblyman Charles Barron said the verdict was a “miscarriage of justice.”
“There’s a killer still lurking out there,” said Barron. “I think that confession was coerced and DNA evidence can always be challenged based on the process of how they collected it. I will continue to support the family and I hope the lawyers appeal. He could’ve been framed. The Black community should be outraged.”
As for Vetrano’s parents, Phil told the media as he walked out of the courtroom, “Justice has been served.”