Queens Daily Eagle: Court assigns defense counsel in Howard Beach murder appeal

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By David Brand
June 18, 2019

The Legal Aid Society will continue representing Chanel Lewis as he appeals his conviction for killing Karina Vetrano while she jogged near her Howard Beach home, a state appellate court determined Friday.

Lewis, 23, was found guilty of first-degree murder at his retrial in April after a Queens jury determined that he strangled Vetrano to death during a random encounter in Spring Creek Park. He was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility for parole on April 23.

Legal Aid immediately filed a notice of appeal to overturn the decision and send the case back to Queens Supreme Court. The Second Department of the state Appellate Division granted their motion to continue representing Lewis.

The case has generated significant attention and controversy since Lewis’ arrest in February 2017, which only increased after a person claiming to be an NYPD officer familiar with the investigation sent an anonymous letter to the media and defense team in March. The letter, first reported by the Daily News, described racial bias in the initial investigation, including a large-scale DNA dragnet targeting black men in Howard Beach and surrounding neighborhoods.

Critics have also alleged that prosecutors withheld evidence from the defense team and that NYPD detectives and Queens prosecutors coerced confessions from Lewis after his arrest.

“Every aspect of this case – from the police investigation to jury deliberations — was propelled by a desire to convict at all costs in complete disregard Mr. Lewis’s constitutional rights,” said David Loftis, attorney-in-charge at Legal Aid’s Post-Conviction and Forensic Litigation unit. “This included a race-based DNA dragnet that ensnared hundreds of New Yorkers of color; blatant failures to disclose crucial exculpatory evidence implicating alternative suspects; and deliberations during which jurors appeared to have acted improperly in violation of the Court’s instruction. It is our strong belief that the trial court failed to meaningfully consider these issues and we look forward to litigating these and other claims for Mr. Lewis on appeal.”

At least three Democratic candidates for Queens District attorney say they would open an investigation into the case.

The conviction came more than two years after Lewis was arrested for the brutal killing and a day after Queens Supreme Court Justice Michael Aloise denied a defense motion to set aside the verdict based on claims of juror misconduct denied a defense motion to set aside the verdict based on claims of juror misconduct.

Lewis was arrested in February 2017 after NYPD detectives obtained a DNA sample from him, which matched trace bits of DNA found on the back of Vetrano’s neck and cellphone, as well as in a mixture found on his finger nails. Lewis gave police and prosecutors two videotaped confessions the morning after his arrest.

Prosecutors built their case on the DNA evidence and the confessions. Lewis’ attorneys argued that the DNA could have been introduced to the scene by accidental transfer or that Vetrano may have come in contact with the DNA earlier in the day. They also argued that the confessions were coerced.

Lewis’ first trial ended in a split jury in November 2018.

He addressed the court for the first time during his sentencing hearing.

”I’m sorry for the family, but I didn’t do this,” Lewis said.

Aloise described the shocking nature of the crime while delivering the life sentence.

“A case like this has the effect to shake you,” Aloise said at sentencing before describing how Vetrano was attacked and murdered while jogging in what he called a “random, senseless, horrific crime.”