Late Tuesday night, Queens County Judge Michael Aloise declared a mistrial in the case against Chanel Lewis for the murder of Karina Vetrano, after only a day and a half of deliberations.
After requesting several pieces of evidence throughout the day, and asking for the entirety of a DNA expert’s testimony to be read back to them, the jury sent out a note to Aloise shortly after 9 p.m.: “After deliberating for the entire day we are split. It doesn’t seem like we can make progress. We feel that we have exhausted all of our options.”
“I’m inclined to believe them,” Aloise told the court room, referring to the deadlocked jury.
After the note was read aloud in court, Lewis’s defense attorneys moved for a mistrial, which Aloise granted.
WABC reported that the jury was split seven in favor of convicting Lewis, and five against it.
Lewis is expected to be tried again, possibly on different, lesser charges, early next year. a meeting between the defense and prosecution about the mistrial has already been set for January 22nd. It’s highly unlikely that the prosecutors who tried the case will be a part of a possible retrial.
The Vetrano family appeared shocked as the judge declared a mistrial. The grueling, two-week trial featured crime scene photos of Karina Vetrano’s battered body, as well as the playing of Lewis’s confessions, which Lewis’s defense attorneys’ claimed were coerced.
Outside the courthouse, Vetrano’s parents quickly entered a waiting car, as family members yelled at members of the media to give them some space.
Lewis’s Legal Aid defense team told reporters they weren’t shocked that the judge granted a mistrial so soon after deliberations had begun.
“They had it for a day and a half and they had every piece of evidence that was in the case in front of them,” defense attorney Robert Moeller said. Asked if this was considered a victory for a defendant that faced tough odds, Moeller answered, “I don’t know about this being any kind of a win.” He cautioned that the facts of a case are simply facts, and it’s up to a jury how to interpret them.
“I don’t know if [Lewis] really knows what it means at this point,” Moeller said. “He’s tired.”
The case had also hinged on DNA evidence found at the crime scene that had been linked to Lewis.
“The issues are complex,” said lawyer Jenny Cheung, who had led the defense team’s DNA cross-examination. “The jury is understanding that DNA is not all it. A confession is not all it. There are issues in a case, as you all see, that are much more complex.”
Chanel Lewis with his legal defense team last week (Pool photo by Curtis Means)
The two week trial concluded with closing arguments on Monday. After the judge blocked Lewis's lawyers from introducing video surveillance and testimony designed to poke holes in the prosecution's arguments, Moeller delivered a ninety minute closing argument, highlighting what he believed to be inconsistencies in the prosecution’s narrative of the murder, and arguing that Lewis’s confession was coerced.
“The government is trying to fit a square peg in a round hole,” Moeller told the jury, claiming that once detectives zeroed in on Lewis, they stopped looking at other possible scenarios of what could have happened, including whether several people could have been involved in the murder. “The police rushed to judgement before having all the facts.”
Moeller also focused on how forensic investigators only swabbed a small section of Vetrano’s body, where it’s possible other people’s DNA could have been found. “Tunnel-vision led to testing that offered biased results,” he argued.
Finishing his remarks, Moeller cautioned the jury that while the amount of coincidences that line up in favor of Lewis’s guilt might appear overwhelming, coincidences do happen. He pointed out that as cops swarmed Spring Creek Park looking for Karina Vetrano, it was her father who happened to find her body. Mr. Vetrano was not considered by the NYPD to be a suspect in the murder.
“We must give the same benefit of doubt to Mr. Lewis as would the prosecution to Mr. Vetrano,” Moeller said.
The impassioned two-hour closing argument by assistant district attorney Brad Leventhal featured Leventhal getting on the ground and miming out Lewis strangling and beating Vetrano to death. He also explained inconsistencies in Lewis’s confession by arguing that Lewis’s attention was elsewhere. During his taped confession, Lewis told detectives Vetrano was wearing a yellow top, even though she was wearing a black top.
“He wasn’t concentrating on the color of the top when he attacked her, he was concentrating on what was underneath her top,” Leventhal said.
Multiple times during closing, Leventhal ventured close to Lewis and pointed a finger in his face. “The evidence in this case is clear,” Leventhal told the jury. “The evidence is overwhelming.”
After the jury was charged and began deliberations, Judge Michael Aloise went around the courtroom and shook hands with both the prosecution and defense attorneys. The judge was wearing a purple tie, the color that Vetrano’s friends and families have been wearing to court in her honor.