A Queens jury late Monday afternoon began considering the case of a Brooklyn man accused of strangling Howard Beach jogger Karina Vetrano in August 2016, a case that grabbed national attention and triggered a massive homicide investigation.
After the jury returned from lunch, State Supreme Court Justice Michael Aloise spent about a half hour instructing the seven women and five men about the law related to the four-count indictment against defendant Chanel Lewis, 22.
Jurors then spent about an hour deliberating. Aloise excused them for the day with instructions to return Tuesday morning. Aloise released from any further duty four alternate jurors, who had been kept apart from the regular panel.
Lewis faces two counts of second-degree murder, one of first-degree murder and another of sexual abuse. Vetrano, 30, was found strangled on Aug. 2, 2016, in Spring Creek Park. The petite speech therapist — she stood just under five feet tall — was found in park weeds by her father Philip and NYPD officers. Her running attire and shorts had been pulled down. An autopsy found injuries to Vetrano consistent with sexual assault.
Aloise told jurors that one second-degree murder charge required a finding that Lewis had intended to kill Vetrano. According to taped confessions submitted into evidence, Lewis said he impulsively grabbed, beat and strangled her.
The other second-degree murder charge required that the jury find Lewis caused Vetrano’s death as he committed sexual abuse, Aloise said. A finding of sexual abuse was also necessary to show guilt on the first-degree murder charge, Aloise told jurors.
As the finding of guilt on the sexual abuse part of the case is an element of three of the four charges in the indictment, Assistant District Attorney Brad Leventhal spent part of his summation Monday arguing to jurors the evidence he said supported the allegation. Lewis attempted to disrobe and sexually touch Vetrano out of “anger and sexual frustration,” Leventhal said.
The prosecutor described Lewis as a “murderer” and a “killer” in his two-hour summation.
Earlier Monday, Legal Aid Society attorney Robert Moeller, among the three-member team representing Lewis, reiterated the defense's position that the case against his client was a rush to judgment by NYPD investigators to support their theory that one person had committed the crime. The soft-spoken Moeller, who rarely strayed far from the podium placed before the jury box, argued that while there was DNA evidence as well as confessions by his client, they fell short of showing solid proof of guilt.
“I submit to you that he told them what they wanted to hear,” Moeller said of Lewis’s confession to detectives, adding that Lewis confessed only after he had been held by cops for hours without being able to make a telephone call. Moeller told jurors that Lewis’s statements were coerced and much of what he told detectives was readily available in the news media in the months before his arrest in February 2017.
Moeller accused the police of contaminating the crime scene because so many cops walked around the park the night of the killing. He also said the forensic investigation was far from complete. Moeller pointed out that the DNA evidence was secured from what he described as a small number of skin cells recovered from Vetrano’s neck and cell phone. He reminded the jury the prosecution's DNA expert had provided no explanation during her testimony for the ratio she used to calculate the likely probability that the DNA came from Lewis. The prosecution expert, Linda Razzano, said the likelihood ratio of the DNA found on Vetrano’s neck and cellphone was such that it proved a match with Lewis’s genetic profile.
In contrast to Moeller’s low-key style, Leventhal moved around the courtroom, from the jury box to close to the defense table, constantly pointing an accusing finger at Lewis.
“The DNA found on the neck and phone point to this man," Leventhal said, "because he is the one who killed her."
Leventhal also noted that the DNA samples from Vetrano’s phone and neck were substantial enough to give complete profiles of Lewis. He defended police tactics in questioning Lewis, noting they had advised him three or four times of his Miranda rights and offered him food and drink while in custody.