By Graham Rayman
March 29, 2019
Lawyers for the man accused of murdering Queens jogger Karina Vetrano are going to file motions on Monday, based on an anonymous letter, alleging prosecutors failed to disclose information that could increase doubt about the suspect’s guilt, sources said.
The Legal Aid Society received an anonymous letter that claimed cops initially believed two “jacked up white guys from Howard Beach” murdered Vetrano while she was jogging in Spring Creek Park on Aug. 2 2016, and that an NYPD official made that comment in meetings with senior investigators. The letter was also sent anonymously to a Daily News reporter.
The significance of the remark is that it suggests cops initially suspected one or more white men of killing Vetrano, not Chanel Lewis, who is black.
Prosecutors have said Lewis, 22, grabbed Vetrano as she went for an evening run through Spring Creek Park near her Howard Beach home. He raped and strangled the 30-year-old, they said, and left her body in weeds.
Tina Luongo, attorney-in-charge at the Legal Aid Society, said defense lawyers had received “troubling and reliable information” indicating police withheld from them critical information about other potential suspects.
“We learned that the police approached Mr. Lewis to obtain a DNA swab as part of a race-biased dragnet, which involved the swabbing of over 360 African-American men in Howard Beach and other neighboring sections of Brooklyn and Queen,” said Luongo.
“In light of this case-altering information, we plan to submit motions on Monday seeking a hearing as to the prosecution’s failure to disclose this exculpatory evidence and a new hearing challenging the Department’s unconstitutional racial profiling throughout their investigation,” Luongo said.
“As we have throughout the course of this trial, we will respond in Court accordingly,” a spokeswoman for the Queens District Attorney said, declining further comment.
The anonymous letter claimed detectives who took DNA material from Lewis after he was detained told a senior officer that Lewis was “too dimwitted and puny” to have committed the crime. The letter claimed that was passed on to another senior officer but not disclosed to the defense.
The letter alleged that the initial stop of Lewis was illegal because there was no specific justification for stopping him and police did not complete a stop and frisk form as required. It’s illegal to “swab” someone for DNA without particularized suspicion of criminal activity. A lawyer familiar with the case said, “The courts have held that you can’t go up and seek consent. You have to have some element of criminality.”
The letter claimed an NYPD officer lobbied for all white males in Howard Beach to be swabbed, and that when DNA recovered from Vetrano’s body appeared to match a black male, the officer verbally ordered all black men arrested in Brooklyn and Queens to be swabbed for DNA, including all black men arrested in Howard Beach.
According to the letter, the NYPD took DNA from more than 360 black men.
A police official told the Daily News that contrary to the letter, males of all ethnicities and backgrounds were swabbed, and that a black male was considered a possible suspect two to three days into the investigation. The official said the legality of stopping Lewis held up in court.
According to the official, police have denied ordering all white men in Howard Beach to be swabbed.
An NYPD spokesman said, “The NYPD has painstakingly investigated the murder of Karina Vetrano, and as the Queens District Attorney’s prosecution demonstrates, the evidence clearly shows that Chanel Lewis is responsible for her death. Multiple legal hearings and two criminal trials, over more than two years, have already exhaustively examined the issues in this anonymous, 11th-hour letter, a missive riddled with falsehoods and inaccuracies.”