Over the course of four dramatic days last week, prosecutors from the Queens District Attorney’s office laid out major parts of their case against Chanel Lewis, the 22-year-old East New York man being charged with the August 2016 killing of 30-year-old Howard Beach resident Karina Vetrano on a secluded running path in Spring Creek Park, which borders the two neighborhoods.
Jurors have already heard testimony from Vetrano’s father, Phil Vetrano, who described finding his daughter’s lifeless body in the weeds of the park. Through anguished tears, Vetrano told jurors that on finding his daughter, “I let out a sound I never made before or since, it was a wail.”
When police officers told Vetrano that this was now a crime scene, and that he had to leave so they could collect evidence, he at first resisted, telling them, “I have to take her home. I have to take her home.”
The courtroom, which has been packed with dozens of friends and family of the Vetrano’s, has been consistently reminded to limit their emotional responses to crime scene photos and testimony about Karina’s death — a tough task for a grieving family being made to consistently relive a tragic day that stretched into an increasingly desperate police investigation. Karina’s friends and family have been wearing purple, Vetrano’s favorite color, as a tribute. Last week, several officers of the court were also seen sporting purple attire. The judge, Michael Aloise, wore purple ties on both Thursday and Friday.
The police officers involved in the six-month investigation into Karina Vetrano’s death before Lewis’ arrest in February of 2017 also took the stand. This included Lieutenant John Russo, the 20-year NYPD veteran who, six months into the investigation, suddenly recalled a stop-and-frisk from eight months prior that eventually led to a cheek swab, possible DNA match, and arrest of Lewis.
The District Attorney’s case relies on three separate pieces of evidence tying Lewis to the crime (of which there were no known eyewitnesses). One of those pieces of evidence is the prosecution’s claim that Lewis’s DNA was found on Vetrano’s back and cell phone, and is part of a mixture of DNA that was found under her fingernails. Another is that Lewis saw a doctor for a hand injury the day after the murder, which doctors described as being consistent with a “boxing injury.” The third piece of evidence, and possibly the most damning, are Lewis’s confessions, which were played in full for the jury on Friday.
The confessions however, are at times confusing, contradictory, and seemingly demonstrate no knowledge of the case that couldn’t have been gleaned by Lewis from news reports about the murder, reports that the prosecution admits he viewed before being interrogated by police officers.
But during both an interview with detectives, and later another one with Queens assistant district attorneys, Lewis describes the grisly murder in detail, telling officers that he had no plan to kill anyone that day, but was simply frustrated with loud music that his neighbors had been playing and wanted to let his emotions out.
In Lewis’s first confession to detectives, given in the early morning of February 5th, he misidentifies what the victim was wearing, and refuses to confess to the alleged sexual assault. Lewis still accurately describes parts of the crime scene, and doesn’t add any embellishing details that stray too far from what has been presented so far in court by prosecutors and crime scene investigators.
The circumstances of the confession have come under scrutiny. Lewis, who graduated from a high school for individuals with learning disabilities, had been held by detectives for almost twelve hours before he gave his confession.
The night before, in the hours after he was arrested, Lewis twice refused to answer questions about the case, and repeatedly requested that he be allowed to call his parents. Police continued to tell him they’d give him a call shortly, but according to defense attorneys, never actually followed through with this. In videos shown in court, an increasingly agitated Lewis spends the first part of the night in an interview room asking detectives at the 107th precinct in Flushing for a phone call. At a little before eleven that evening, he is taken out of the interview room and placed in a holding cell, where police said he couldn’t sleep, and instead watched cartoons on TV. According to his defense attorneys, Lewis had never spent a night away from his parents in his life.
It was only after seven hours of being held in the holding cell at the precinct (without any type of video surveillance or documentation) that Detective Barry Brown, a 25-year NYPD veteran, testified that Lewis engaged him, telling him he wanted to “change my life,” and that he was “sorry for what I did.” That was when police officers brought him back into the taped interrogation room, where he gave the first 45-minute confession.
After Lewis’s first confession, he spoke to two Assistant District Attorneys from the Queens DA’s office, and repeated his confession to them. Towards the end of this second confession, Lewis refers to a conversation about possible resolutions and sentencing alternatives he claims he had with Detective Brown shortly before his initial confession, saying, “it was something between me and him, that we were waiting for you to talk about.” The assistant district attorneys quickly steer the conversation away from this line of thought and urge Lewis to fully confess and cooperate with them, as Lewis appears to become confused as to who he’s speaking with, bringing up the idea of restitution or a program he could enroll in exchange for confessing to the crime.
From the video, it’s very possible that Lewis thought the District Attorney was his own lawyer.
[Video courtesy of the Queens Daily Eagle]
“Where do we go from here?” Lewis asked an ADA.
“I don’t know,” the ADA responds.
“You’re the attorney right?” Lewis asks.
“I’m the Assistant DA, yes,” the ADA says.
“The attorney is somewhere else right,” Lewis said.
“Later on,” the ADA responds.
So far during the trial, Lewis’s Legal Aid defense team has held back from forcefully cross-examining the prosecution’s witnesses, preferring to allow the evidence presented by the prosecution, which they believe is shaky, to speak for itself.
The circumstances that led to Lewis’s arrest were relayed in court this past Thursday, when John Russo, an NYPD lieutenant commander of detectives, described how he spent at least an hour of Memorial Day 2016 driving around and following a “suspicious” individual in the neighborhood surrounding his Howard Beach home. Russo was off-duty at the time, and had his two daughters in the backseat of his car as he tracked an individual who ended up being identified as Chanel Lewis. He testified in court he found Lewis to be “suspicious” because he was walking around in a hoodie, even though the weather was in the eighties on that afternoon.
Eventually, Russo called 911 to report the suspicious individual who was walking around the neighborhood. On Thursday, prosecutors played the 911 call.
“He’s looking in yards around different blocks, just by himself,” he tells the dispatcher. He describes Lewis as a “dark-skinned male.”
The next day, Russo received an email alert about a suspicious person in Howard Beach, just as he was going off-duty. He raced to the scene and watched as the person, who turned out to be Lewis, was stopped and frisked by police. Lewis was never arrested that day, telling officers he was in the neighborhood to look for a place to eat. The officers then drove Lewis, who is from East New York, to the Rockaways, where they dropped him off at a McDonalds. It is unclear why the officers did this, and their reasoning has never been explained in court.
Russo, strangely enough, then reported seeing Lewis in the Rockaways later that same day, as the Lieutenant went out to eat with his family.
Russo’s job with the NYPD is to oversee all active investigations in New York City, including, at the time of the arrest, the Vetrano murder investigation. What triggered Russo’s memory after six months of an increasingly desperate investigation, where the NYPD had seemingly run out of productive leads, has also never been explained in court. Russo had been following Lewis around Howard Beach and made the 911 call just over two months before the murder.
Legal Aid lawyers, who pressed on the possible racial aspect of the stop during pre-trial hearings last year, limited their questioning of Russo to details about whether Lewis actually broke any laws during the hour he was under Russo’s observation, and whether he had any reason to believe Lewis was about to break any laws.
On Tuesday, the prosecution will dive into the DNA evidence against Lewis, the methodology of which the defense focused on intensely during pre-trial hearings. Whether the prosecution can prove that the DNA directly implicates Lewis, rather than it simply showing that his DNA could be among a pool of genetic material evidence, will be critical for the government’s case.
Testimony is expected to conclude by Friday. The defense has not ruled out that Lewis will testify on his own behalf.