National News

The Murder Case Seemed Solid, but Jurors Balked

Posted December 5, 2018 10:29 p.m. EST

NEW YORK — The Queens district attorney’s office believed its case against Chanel Lewis was airtight. Prosecutors had a videotape of Lewis confessing to the murder of 30-year-old Karina Vetrano two years ago as she jogged through a Queens park. Police had also found his DNA on her body.

But after a two-week trial last month, the unexpected happened: The jury remained hopelessly deadlocked after only two days of deliberations. The judge quickly declared a mistrial. Prosecutors did not object.

Usually, a videotaped admission of guilt coupled with DNA evidence almost guarantees a conviction. But the Vetrano case demonstrated that jurors are starting to doubt such evidence.

Over the past 20 years, several cases involving false confessions have surfaced, and DNA evidence, while seemingly convincing, has not always persuaded jurors who have concerns about police integrity. The skepticism is higher in minority communities, where relationships with law enforcement have been strained, legal experts said.

“There is a sophistication now among a lot of jurors that we haven’t seen before in understanding confessions can be false and that the DNA evidence needs to be examined,” said Lauren-Brooke Eisen, a senior fellow with New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice and a former Staten Island prosecutor. “Jurors are much more aware of the complexity of the criminal justice system — and of racial disparities.”

Several jurors agreed with the defense’s argument that Lewis’ confession might have been coerced and that DNA evidence could have been contaminated, according to one juror, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of harassment.

The juror’s account could not be independently confirmed, but it meshed with what transpired in court and with evidence the jury reviewed during deliberations. Two other jurors declined to comment, while several more did not respond to requests for an interview.

The juror said all panel members agreed early on that prosecutors failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Lewis had sexually assaulted Vetrano, but the jury remained split about whether Lewis was guilty of murder.

Seven members wanted to convict him, according to the juror, including all four white members of the panel, a Hispanic woman, an Asian man and a black man.

The five people who had doubts about his guilt were of black, Hispanic and Indian descent.

Some jurors were troubled by how Lewis, who is black, became a suspect in the first place, the juror said. He was arrested on what amounted to a hunch from a police lieutenant, who, months before the murder, had seen him “acting suspiciously” as he wandered through Howard Beach, a mostly white neighborhood where the murder happened.

The members who were leaning toward acquittal thought the police had pressured Lewis into a false confession, the juror said. Some wanted more information about what happened in the hours before his videotaped statement when he had first denied any involvement. One of those jurors also questioned why DNA evidence had been handled by several officers before being turned over to a lab, and why Lewis’ DNA was found on Vetrano’s neck but not on her necklace.

Jurors spent at least three hours discussing the DNA evidence, the juror said. Deliberations in general were civil at first, the juror said, but at certain moments it turned hostile. “You could feel the tension in the room,” the juror said.

As talks dragged into the night of the second day, the jurors tired. They were still divided seven to five in favor of a conviction. But two jurors told the group their minds were firmly made up: Lewis was not guilty.

The panel decided to write a letter to the judge, Michael B. Aloise of state Supreme Court, hoping that he could somehow help with the impasse, the juror said.

“We were at a loss regarding what would be the next step, that’s why we wrote a note to the judge,” the juror said. “We wanted to go home, but we didn’t want to stop deliberating.”

The jurors were surprised when Aloise promptly declared a mistrial and let them go after only 13 hours of deliberations. The decision to do so without first instructing them to return and try to reach a decision — a judicial practice commonly referred to as an Allen charge — stunned many in the courtroom.

“Everybody was a bit surprised by the alacrity at which he granted a mistrial,” said one court official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the person was not authorized to speak publicly about the case. “It is not usual.”

Aloise did not respond to requests for comment. The Queens district attorney’s office has promised to retry the case in January.

Vetrano’s murder was one of the most high-profile cases in recent years in New York City.

Her badly beaten body was found near a weeded trail in Spring Creek Park in the Howard Beach section of Queens on Aug. 2, 2016. Prosecutors said she was partially clothed and had been strangled, and her remains indicated she had been sexually abused. Six months later, police arrested Lewis, based on the suspicions of John Russo, a police lieutenant.

Lewis had attracted Russo’s attention three months before the murder, because he had been walking slowly through Howard Beach, wearing a hoodie on a sweltering day, stopping to look at houses and “acting suspiciously.” The next day, the lieutenant spotted Lewis again and asked some patrol officers to stop and frisk him.

As the investigation into Vetrano’s murder dragged on without an arrest, Russo suggested to detectives they talk to Lewis. Police went to his home in East New York, Brooklyn, about 3 miles away from Howard Beach, and asked him for a DNA sample. Lewis agreed to give the sample, which matched DNA found on Vetrano’s neck and cellphone, as well as a mixture sample taken from her fingernails, prosecutors said.

At trial, Lewis’ defense lawyer, Jenny Cheung, raised the possibility of “transference.” Lewis’ DNA could have ended up on Vetrano’s cellphone or neck if they had both touched the same surface at some point, she said.

Lewis after his arrest repeatedly denied any involvement in Vetrano’s death. But after a four-hour interrogation, he told a Queens assistant district attorney in a videotaped interview that he “was beating her and was mad at her.” He also told detectives that he attacked Vetrano because he was angry that his neighbors had been playing loud music. He denied sexually assaulting her, and maintained she had drowned in a puddle, though an autopsy showed she was strangled.

Defense lawyers stressed that Lewis was kept in a “windowless” interrogation room, and then a jail cell, for several hours before admitting to the crime.

Lewis, who attended a school for students with learning disabilities, appeared at times confused on the videotape. He initially mistook a prosecutor for his own lawyer, and mumbled through some of his responses. The video shows him often pacing around and fidgeting when left alone. His lawyers said he had never spent a night away from home.

Brad A. Leventhal, the lead prosecutor on the case, noted that Lewis’ cellphone contained downloaded images of the crime scene and that he had searched online for information related to “second chances.” He also had a hand injury the day after the murder that a doctor said was consistent with punching someone.

“The evidence in this case, ladies and gentlemen, is overwhelming,” Leventhal said in his opening statement.

For some jurors, however, it was not.