November 28th, 2018
By Graham Rayman
The case against a Queens man accused of the slaying of Howard Beach jogger Karina Vetrano was never a slam-dunk — despite a confession and DNA evidence, according to lawyers for the suspect.
On Nov. 20, the jury in the trial of Chanel Lewis sent a note to Judge Michael Aloise that they were hopelessly deadlocked, and Aloise declared a mistrial.
The 22-year-old defendant remains accused of beating and strangling Vetrano on Aug. 2, 2016 in Spring Creek Park in a case that drew national headlines. He was arrested in February 2017 and the police said his DNA matched skin cells discovered under Vetrano’s fingernails. He also gave a confession.
But Lewis’ defense lawyers, Robert Moeller, Jenny Cheung and Julia Burke, told the Daily News the deadlocked jury demonstrated prosecutors still didn’t prove their case.
“We were able to show the jury that the case was not clear cut as presented,” Cheung said. “There was a rush to judgment here. The police came on the scene and they made the assumption that it was a sexual assault done by one male. That theory drove the whole case, but when you have tunnel vision, you miss other possibilities. There were other things they could have done that it doesn’t appear they did. In the end, the jury had more questions than answers.”
The lawyers said the outcome also shows the problem with reliance on trace DNA evidence.
“Through the cross-examination, we were able to show there were limitations to the science when you’re talking about skin cells and trace evidence,” Cheung said. “DNA can tell you whose profile it is, but it can’t tell you when and how DNA gets on objects. They had to prove that there was only one way the DNA got there. It was proven to the jury’s satisfaction that there were questions about that.”
Moeller said the mistrial was unexpected, but he disagreed with critics who suggested Aloise should have ordered the jury to take more time to deliberate.
The jury got the case on Nov. 19 in the afternoon and deliberated all day and into Tuesday evening, Nov. 20, he said, reviewing all the key evidence, before sending a note to the judge. They were reportedly split seven in favor of guilt and five in favor of acquittal.
“The last note was pretty clear,” Moeller said. “It stated they were hopelessly deadlocked. I don’t think the mistrial was premature. Keeping them in there wasn’t going to change anything.”
Because there was no verdict, the jurors were not polled by the two sides. An alternate juror told The News on Nov. 21 she, too, was unconvinced of Lewis’ guilt and would have voted to acquit him.
Moeller said none of the jurors gave them any clue what direction they were leaning. “Usually, you see something like this coming,” he said. “They were poker faced. I had no inkling. But they took it seriously. They weren’t rushing to be done.”
Both sides gave two-hours of summation in the case. “You could tell that the jury really want to hear what our spin on it was," Moeller said. “We had a great team. We had a lot of people working for (Lewis) and it paid off.”
Queens prosecutors have said they will retry Lewis in the spring. A hearing is set for January.
“This is a pending case, therefore, we can not comment beyond stating that we are confident with the evidence and are prepared to try this case again before a jury in the coming year,” a spokeswoman for Queens District Attorney Richard Brown said.