Chanel Lewis, the emotionally troubled Brooklyn man convicted of murdering Howard Beach jogger Karina Vetrano, was sentenced to life in prison without parole Tuesday after the victim's family described in court how her death devastated their lives.
Queens state Supreme Court Justice Michael Aloise imposed maximum prison sentences on Lewis, 22, for the charges of first- and second-degree murder as well as sexual abuse in the August 2016 strangulation of Vetrano at a park near her home.
“My heart was ripped from me that night and it created a wound that will never heal,” Philip Vetrano, the victim's father, told Aloise in court.
Dressed in a black T-shirt bearing the white outline of a butterfly, one his slain daughter’s favorite symbols, Vetrano read from a two-page typewritten statement. In it, he touched on his anger and deep sense of loss but also how his daughter's death had him contemplating ending his own life.
“Only my faith in God and my belief in heaven keeps me from killing myself for fear of not being allowed into heaven to see my baby again.”
Relatives and supporters of Lewis, who have questioned the DNA evidence found on Karina Vetrano's body that matched his and also alleged juror misconduct, were in the courtroom during victim impact statements from the Vetrano family. After the judge handed down the sentence they protested outside the courthouse.
The sentencing of Lewis ended an ordeal that began on a warm Aug. 2 night in 2016 when Karina Vetrano returned home to Howard Beach from her job as a speech pathologist in Manhattan. She went for an early evening jog alone in nearby Spring Creek Park and eventually crossed paths with Lewis, who sexually assaulted and strangled her. Philip Vetrano, who usually jogged with his daughter but didn't that day due to an injury, found her body in weeds off the jogging trail during a search with NYPD officers.
Vetrano's violent, random death while jogging not far from home stunned a city filled with runners and also triggered international headlines.
A jury found Lewis guilty April 1 at the East New York's man's retrial after five hours of deliberation. Lewis's first trial in November ended in a mistrial after the jury couldn’t agree on a verdict.
Before announcing the sentence, Aloise called the killing of Karina Vetrano “a horrific crime” that he couldn’t comprehend, despite spending a lifetime in the criminal justice system.
In a statement after the sentencing, Lewis’s Legal Aid Society lawyers said they would appeal the conviction, a process that could take many months and even years to play out.
Tuesday's sentencing took place in a packed ceremonial courtroom in the Queens state Supreme Court building in Kew Gardens. On Monday, defense attorneys failed to convince Aloise to set aside the guilty verdict over the alleged juror misconduct.
Glancing at Lewis, Philip Vetrano said “that convicted, murdering rapist deserves to spend the rest of his life locked away from society. He is a serial [killer] in the making. If he wasn’t caught I know he would have killed again and again.”
Karina Vetrano’s sister Tana, accompanied by their brother Eddie, said she wished Lewis a long life in the “darkness and fear” of prison.
Speaking last, Catherine Vetrano, wearing a floral print dress and a purple shawl, read from a statement in which she invoked her Roman Catholicism as she condemned Lewis for killing her daughter.
“You rejected the Holy Spirit and carried out the work of Satan,” she told Lewis.
As she has tried to cope with her daughter’s death, Catherine Vetrano said she remains haunted by the unexpected, which underscores the loss of Karina. Most recently, Catherine Vetrano recalled, her young grandson looked her in the eyes and asked, “when is Ri-Ri coming home?”, a reference to Karina’s nickname.
Lewis, who was unemployed before his arrest in February 2017, then addressed the court while remaining seated with his attorneys at the courtroom defense table. In a low, mumbling voice, he spoke into a microphone to declare his innocence.
“I am sorry for the family’s loss," said Lewis, wearing a gray suit with no tie and a white dress shirt buttoned to the neck, "but I didn’t do this.”
Assistant District Attorney Brad Leventhal made an unexpected revelation in court when he quoted from a psychologist report on Lewis that had been prepared when his attorneys were contemplating a psychiatric defense. The psychologist used by the defense indicated that Lewis had confessed to the crime during his interview, Leventhal said. The doctor added that Lewis’ mental Illness was a factor in the Vetrano killing, which could have been prevented had he received “adequate treatment,” Leventhal said.
In response, defense attorney Robert Moeller told Aloise that Legal Aid had valid reasons for abandoning the idea of a psychiatric defense. Moeller also said he didn’t come to the same conclusion as Leventhal that Lewis had confessed to the psychologist about killing Vetrano.
Outside the courthouse, Lewis’ supporters stood with his mother Veta. They criticized Aloise and called the sentencing a lynching. Two Lewis supporters later knelt in the middle of Queens Boulevard and were taken into custody by police officers and given desk appearance tickets, officials said.
“The NYPD shouldn’t be here today, they should go out and find the real killer,” said the Rev. Kevin McCall. “We know Chanel is innocent.”