By Anthony M. DeStefano
March 9, 2019
After a mistrial last November, Queens prosecutors and defense attorneys will begin this week picking another jury in the case of the Brooklyn man accused of the murder two years ago of Howard Beach jogger Karina Vetrano.
Dozens of potential jurors are scheduled to appear before Queens State Supreme Court Justice Michael Aloise to be screened for a panel to hear evidence in the case against Chanel Lewis, 22 of East New York.
Lewis is accused of strangling and sexually abusing Vetrano, 30, attacking her as she jogged near her home in Spring Creek Park the evening of Aug. 2, 2016. He is being held in a Suffolk County jail.
The killing of Vetrano, whose battered body was found face down in the park weeds by her father Philip and detectives, became international news and triggered an often frustrating six-month police probe.
“I made a sound I never made before or since,” Philip Vetrano testified in November about his shock at finding his daughter's body.
After police arrested Lewis in February 2017, they believed their case was solidly based on his two confessions and, perhaps more important, the suspect’s DNA found on Vetrano’s neck, under her fingernails and on her cellphone. But after a nearly three-week trial, a jury of seven women and five men couldn’t agree on a verdict and Aloise declared a mistrial.
The jury ultimately voted 7-5 for conviction, with all of the male jurors, joined by two women, believing Lewis was guilty, according to people briefed on the deliberations. Some jurors wanted to continue working, but prosecutors and the Vetrano family supported a mistrial, believing the jury was too deeply divided.
Law enforcement sources said sympathy for the defendant, an unemployed, taciturn man who was socially awkward, may have played a role.
In the first trial, jury selection took only about nine hours and resulted in a panel of mostly younger people— 30 and under-- which police and others in law enforcement believe may have worked against the prosecution.
“The jury selection becomes critical in this second round,” said Brooklyn defense attorney James DiPietro, a former Nassau County assistant district attorney.
On paper, said DiPietro, the prosecution has a strong case. But juries can be unpredictable, he noted.
“There is no such thing as a ‘gimme’ in this business," he said.
The prosecution should want a jury of older, working people with children, while the defense is likely to angle for a young panel like that in the first trial, said DiPietro.
Assistant District Attorneys Brad Leventhal and Mike Curtis, as well as defense attorneys Jennie Cheung, Robert Moeller and Julia Burke of the Legal Aid Society, are expected to spend days picking a jury for the second trial. The Queens district attorney's office and the Legal Aid Society declined to comment.
The evidence and witnesses are expected to be basically the same, with testimony from detectives, experts and Vetrano’s father, a retired FDNY firefighter, who gave emotional testimony about the search with police and the painful discovery of the body of his once-vivacious daughter.
Also expected to testify is NYPD Lt. John Russo, whose memory about a prior stop of Lewis by cops in Howard Beach in May 2016 led to a re-interview of the defendant after the killing and his consent to give a DNA sample. Lewis’s DNA, said police, matched that found on Vetrano’s body and he confessed.
Russo was accused by some critics in court papers of racially profiling Lewis, who is black, in the initial stop, but he said he didn’t know the race or ethnicity of Lewis when he first spotted him on the street. He testified that he saw Lewis in his own Queens neighborhood and thought he seemed suspicious because he had his hoodie up on a warm day.
A day later, after 911 calls alleged that a man was going into backyards in Howard Beach, Lewis was stopped by cops, with Russo watching from a distance. He was questioned and let go. Months later, after the killing, Russo found records showing Lewis had once told authorities he wanted to hurt girls, court papers say. He instructed detectives to go back to talk to him and they got the DNA sample.
In the first trial, defense attorneys made their case largely through cross-examination of prosecution witnesses and suggested that Lewis’ confessions were coerced and that the DNA evidence was ambiguous.
During his summation in November, defense attorney Moeller told jurors that Lewis didn’t say anything to cops in his confessions that hadn’t been reported in the news media. Law enforcement sources say, however, undisclosed details about a puddle on the jogging trail Lewis mentioned in his statements could become critical in the upcoming trial.
In his confession, Lewis described grappling with Vetrano, beating and strangling her as her head dropped into the water.
Since the trial, Lewis has been in a special housing area in the Riverhead Correctional Facility after he was involved in an altercation with another inmate last month, officials said. He was transferred from city jails after making numerous allegations of mistreatment by guards and other inmates. Some of the allegations were found to be unfounded; others are being investigated, officials said.