Last week, Queens Judge Michael Aloise told the reporters covering the high-profile murder trial of Chanel Lewis that they would have to ask the Queens District Attorney’s public information office about obtaining specific pieces of evidence entered into the public record in the case against Lewis for the murder of 30-year-old Howard Beach jogger Karina Vetrano.
Yet the Queens DA’s office has been withholding crucial pieces of evidence from the media, including 911 calls and medical records, even after repeated requests by members of the press, and in contradiction of a long-standing federal court ruling that ensures that reporters have access to evidence entered in criminal court.
“It is highly unusual to delegate this responsibility to one or the other parties,” Jen Nelson, a staff attorney with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
Nelson says that it is well-established legal precedent that judges and their clerks, not prosecutors or defense attorneys, are responsible for deciding whether or not to release evidence to reporters. “I’m certain that the trial judge knows he should not be doing this. The judge should be the gatekeeper.”
Judges are allowed to cite specific reasons for not sharing evidence with the media — including if they might infringe on an individual’s private information or include sensitive materials like crime scene photos.
But the Queens District Attorney’s office has been denying media’s requests without any explanation. With the trial coming to a close next week, it’s possible that several pieces of evidence from the case will be sealed without being inspected by the press.
“Courts have found that the public has a right to view evidence, and that the media is acting as a proxy for the public,” Nelson said.
Reporters and lawyers around the courthouse have told Gothamist that this type of behavior is typical, where judges and prosecutors will attempt to be as opaque as possible when it comes to material that might not reflect well on the prosecution’s case.
One of the pieces of evidence being withheld is a medical report from a visit to the hospital that Lewis made the day after Vetrano was found dead. Prosecutors entered the records into evidence last week as proof that Lewis was treated for a hand injury, bolstering their case that Lewis beat, strangled, and sexually assaulted Vetrano.
Gothamist and The Queens Eagle were able to briefly view these records through other means, which show that while Lewis had a hand injury, they undercut a major piece of evidence against Lewis — that Vetrano scratched his face during the attack.
In the report, Lewis’s head was described as “atraumatic,” meaning he had no visible injuries, and the doctor treating him simply wrote that Lewis received a “single superficial laceration,” on his hand. According to the medical records, Lewis also told the doctor at SUNY Downstate that he fell while jogging at 8 p.m. that night, three hours after the attack on Vetrano took place.
While jurors will be able to inspect the entire medical report as part of deliberations, which are expected to begin next Monday, the public has been blocked from viewing this crucial piece of evidence against Lewis as well as several others — including a 911 call made by a police lieutenant who had been tailing Lewis two months before the murder, and a log of cell phone towers that picked up Lewis’s location on the dates surrounding the murder.
“This should be a huge red flag,” Nelson told Gothamist.
A spokesperson for the Queens DA has not responded to a request for comment.