About six months after the August 2016 killing of jogger Karina Vetrano in a park near her Howard Beach home, NYPD investigators had hit a wall. There was no suspect and there were no matches to the unknown DNA found on the body.
But in January 2017, NYPD Lt. John Russo, himself a resident of Howard Beach, remembered that on May 31, 2016, anti-crime cops questioned 20-year-old Chanel Lewis because he matched the description of a possible criminal trespasser or burglar loitering in Howard Beach backyards.
Russo checked and found Lewis had received summonses in the area where Vetrano was killed and had twice said he wanted to harm girls. Russo’s hunch, based off his memory of the May 2016 stop, eventually led cops to question Lewis for Vetrano’s killing. The East New York man gave a DNA sample voluntarily and it matched DNA found on Vetrano.
Nearly two years later, as Lewis awaits trial, charged with murder and sexual abuse in Vetrano’s death, his Legal Aid attorney, Robert Moeller, wants the DNA evidence and his client’s statements about strangling Vetrano, thrown out by Queens State Supreme Court Gregory Lasak.
Moeller has argued that the NYPD broke the law when it initially stopped Lewis in May 2016. Officers based their 15-minute stop on a vague description that escalated to an improper detention of Lewis, the defense said in court filings. As a result, Moeller and Lewis’ other defense attorneys have argued in court papers, the DNA evidence collected later was tainted and should be excluded from the case.
Lasak is scheduled to rule on the defense motion on Monday. His decision will determine the future direction of the case. Neither defense nor prosecution attorneys would comment.
On Feb. 5, 2017, Lewis was formally charged with first- and second-degree murder and first-degree sexual abuse.
Defense attorneys routinely use suppression motions to challenge the legality of evidence. Those moves are generally — but not always — an uphill battle.
“It doesn’t happen often that you win,” said noted defense attorney Jeffrey Lichtman. “You make it so that, if you lose, you bring it up on appeal.”
In the Vetrano case the stakes are high because the defense is challenging the core evidence — the DNA and Lewis’ statements.
In its court filings, the prosecution team lead by Assistant District Attorney Brad Leventhal, maintains that the May 31, 2016, street stop of Lewis, in which cops learned his name and address, was lawful and based on reasonable suspicion sparked by a 911 call.
The Howard Beach 911 caller had reported that a man, “wearing a black and white track suit, was walking in and out of people’s yards, and had a crow bar,” court papers stated.
Russo had seen a similarly dressed man a day earlier, seemingly casing houses in Howard Beach, so he drove to the location, spotted Lewis and called anti-crime cops. Officers approached Lewis, who was wearing a black and white sweatsuit ensemble, court records stated. During the stop, officers patted down Lewis’s belt area and pockets but didn’t do a complete search.
After Lewis calmly told the cops he was in the area looking for something to eat, the officers took his name and let him go. No crowbar was found.
In early 2017, with the investigation into Ventrano’s death at a standstill, Russo remembered the May stop of Lewis. He checked and found Lewis’ name in the memo book of one the cops who had stopped him.
Russo presented his findings to Chief of Detectives Robert Boyce, who requested investigators interview Lewis and get the DNA sample. They had already gotten DNA samples from more than 100 other potential suspects in Vetrano’s killing.
After Lewis’ DNA matched samples found at the Vetrano crime scene in Spring Creek Park, he was taken into custody. According to police, Lewis, who lived with his mother, gave statements in which he admitted encountering Vetrano in the park before beating and strangling her because he said: “I just lost it.”
A legal scholar who didn’t want to be quoted said that, based on the court papers and the police stop, the May 2016 questioning of Lewis appeared proper, as he was dressed similarly to the description related in the 911 call.
The defense contends that police knowledge of Lewis’ name was improper because the officers learned it during an allegedly illegal stop. But Leventhal argued in court papers that legal precedents, including a state Court of Appeals ruling, hold that a person’s identity is never suppressible, even if learned through an illegal search.
Former prosecutor and Brooklyn defense attorney James DiPietro said the exclusionary rules about evidence have a number of exceptions. In 2016 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the passage of time — in this case over six months — can attenuate or dilute the link between any illegal search and the resulting discovery of evidence, DiPietro said.