Nearly four months after a deadlocked jury led to the shockingly speedy declaration of a mistrial, the retrial of Chanel Lewis, the man accused of murdering and sexual assaulting 30-year-old Karina Vetrano, began in Queens Criminal Court on Monday. Lewis, whose confession defense lawyers are arguing was coerced, is being tried again for first-degree murder, which carries a life sentence.
“He choked her until she couldn’t breathe anymore. He choked her until she died, alone, scared,” assistant district attorney Brad Leventhal told the new jury during his almost two-hour long opening. “This was a crime of opportunity,” Leventhal argued. “This was a crime of random senseless violence.”
The prosecution’s case, as laid out by Leventhal, who is trying the case as a lead prosecutor for a second time, closely hewed to their arguments in the first trial — with a new emphasis on issues where the defense was able to gain traction with the previous trials’ jurors. Specifically, whether Lewis was coached and pressured by detectives before he delivered his confession which came after he was denied a phone call and held overnight in jail, and whether the crime scene had been contaminated before DNA could be collected.
Prosecutors allege that Lewis, who went to a school for students with learning disabilities, grew angry about a neighbor’s loud music on the afternoon of August 2nd, 2016, and went to Spring Creek Park in Howard Beach in an attempt to “cool off.” Lewis often went to the park from his home in neighboring East New York, but this time, he said during his confession, that he “saw red,” when he was approached by Vetrano, who was out for a run. Prosecutors say he then punched her and strangled her to death along the secluded running path.
“He’s a loner, he doesn’t have friends,” Leventhal said of Lewis. Leventhal was noticeably more restrained during this opening than his previous one, where he pantomimed the murder and emphasized points by punching into the air. Lewis, who was wearing a new suit, and whose hair has grown out since the November trial, looked straight ahead and stayed expressionless during the openings.
Before jury selection last week, defense attorneys asked that Lewis be returned to Rikers Island from jail in Suffolk County, where he had been transferred by the city’s Department of Correction at the beginning of February. According to judge Michael Aloise, Lewis had been “abusing” his 311 privileges, by making too many complaints to the city about conditions in the jail (311 is a common method for detainees in city prisons to make complaints about their confinement.)
Aloise agreed to send Lewis back to Rikers Island from Riverhead, which is almost 70 miles from his lawyers in Queens, on the condition that he if he were to start “abusing” 311 again, he would be “sent back to Riverhead.” While in Riverhead, Lewis was assaulted by another incarcerated person, and had to go to a nearby hospital to have a head wound stapled.
In her 15 minute opening, defense attorney Jenny Cheung advised the jury to “please take note of specific references to outside conversations,” during Lewis’s confession. At the first trial, it was revealed that at points during his confession, Lewis asked the detectives interviewing him about things they had talked about previously, when Lewis was being held in a holding cell that was not being recorded for audio or video. (Police officers testified in November that while he was in the holding cell, they only berated him for being unemployed, and turned on a nearby TV for him. Once he began discussing details of the case, they said, they rushed him into the interview room.)
During a second confession made to an assistant district attorney, Lewis appears to have confused the prosecutors with his own attorneys, expressing hope that they were going to help him enter a diversion program.
Cheung admitted that the prosecution will present a lot of evidence against Lewis, including cell phone location data placing him near the park that day, as well as a hand injury he had treated the day after the murder. But Cheung credits those as the result of a case that had gone unsolved for six months, which created a sense of tunnel-vision by investigators looking to pin the crime on someone as quickly as possible.
“Consider how the investigation would be different if there was not as much pressure,” Cheung told the jury, pointing out the connections between the Vetrano family and law enforcement — Phil Vetrano, Karina’s father, testified in the previous trial that he called his friend NYPD Chief John Cassidy, when he suspected that his daughter was missing, rather than calling 911.
The jury at the previous trial, which reportedly split 7-5 in favor of conviction before a mistrial was declared, skewed noticeably younger and more diverse than the new jury, which is now majority white, and comprised of six men and six women. One juror, an older white man, nodded theatrically during the prosecution’s opening statement, but sat stone-faced as the defense laid out their case.
The first three witnesses called by the prosecution after the openings did not testify in the first trial. All three were police officers who told the jury that the area around Vetrano’s cell phone and body were guarded after being found on the night of August 2nd, and clarifying the chain of custody of the DNA evidence before it was handed over to the city’s Medical Examiner. In the previous trial, defense attorneys persuasively argued that the DNA evidence was not handled properly, and that the “match” prosecutors claimed they had was not actually an exact match, but an indication of a possible match.
Another new witness could be Vetrano’s mother, Cathie. On Monday morning, Judge Aloise allowed her to be able testify even though she was present during opening statements and the day’s witnesses. Usually, witnesses are barred from being present at a trial before testifying.
Aloise presided over the first trial, where his decision to quickly declare a mistrial came under intense scrutiny by both former prosecutors and defense attorneys. Aloise, whose daughter and son-in-law are current Queens prosecutors, also wore a purple tie on many days of the trial — the same color that Vetrano’s family wears in court to honor her.
This trial, along with the upcoming trial of two men indicted for felony murder of a police officer who was killed by friendly fire, mark the last big cases that will be tried by retiring District Attorney Richard Brown, who has been in office for twenty-eight years. A large field of candidates running for the position have been calling for radical changes to the office, which has lagged far behind in reforms that most prosecutor’s offices in major cities now consider routine, like creating a conviction review unit, and considering the immigration consequences of individuals being prosecuted for low-level crimes.
The trial is expected to last more than three weeks, which owes more to the relaxed pace of the criminal justice system in Queens than the amount of witnesses being called.
Exiting the courtroom, Cheung’s co-defense attorneys Robert Moeller and Julia Burke, said that the day held “no surprises.” Moeller elaborated that with a re-trial, you already know what the fastballs are going to be from the prosecution, and that the key is to “watch and wait for that curve.”