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Vetrano Case Conviction: Division and Doubts

April 29, 2019

Anyone who doubts that race, poverty and policing drive the city’s criminal justice system might examine the case of Karina Vetrano.

Click here to read what the police brass say about NYPD ConfidentialVetrano, a 30-year-old white woman who lived with her family in Queens [her father is a retired firefighter], was strangled and beaten to death in May 2016 as she jogged in Spring Creek Park in Howard Beach.

Six months later, police charged Chanel Lewis, a black man from Brooklyn, with her murder. Police say his DNA matched that found on Vetrano and on her cell phone at the crime scene and that he later confessed to killing her. A prosecutorial slam dunk, you might say.

Except that, at his first trial four months ago, the jury deadlocked. At issue were the circumstances surrounding Lewis’s arrest, his confession, and questions about the DNA’s accuracy.

Click here to read the New York Times profile of Leonard LevittLaw enforcement sources say the police determined the DNA found on Vetrano matched that of an African-American and that police took voluntary samples of some 350 black men. Earlier in the case, police took DNA samples from Vetrano’s family, friends, and co-workers. All proved negative.

Police settled on Lewis, based on a “hunch” as The New York Times put it, by Det. John Russo, who recalled an earlier encounter with Lewis on May 30 in Howard Beach. Russo thought Lewis was overdressed in a hoodie for such a warm day and felt he was casing neighborhood homes. Detectives interviewed Lewis, who voluntarily offered his DNA, which matched DNA found at the murder scene.

Defense attorneys questioned the circumstances surrounding Lewis’s confession. He had been held in police custody for hours without an attorney before he confessed. He later recanted.

Click here to read the Washington Post article on NYPD ConfidentialDefense attorneys also raised questions about the DNA evidence. Earlier this year, the Times reported that Marina Stajic, an official at the office of the Chief Medical Examiner, was fired after she claimed a DNA testing technique could lead to wrongful convictions. The city subsequently paid her $1 million after she sued.

Finally, there was some NYPD history. Over the years, newspaper accounts have cited 14 overturned convictions of young black males in the 1980s and ’90s due to false confessions obtained by retired NYPD Det. Louis Scarcella. Last week, the Times reported that a Det. Joseph E. Franco’s investigations led to three people being sent to prison for crimes they did not commit.

Indeed, the Times, once known as the Gray Lady because of its reserved local coverage, is now viewed by many in law enforcement as having a radical-chic anti-police agenda. Time will judge how accurate or misleading its reporting has been.

Following the deadlocked jury, Queens Judge Michael Aloise ordered a new trial. Testimony then revealed that, while in police custody, Lewis was videotaped, read his Miranda rights, refused to talk, and declined a lawyer.

He then told cops he wanted to turn his life around and asked to talk to the victim’s family. He subsequently confessed both to the police and later to prosecutors. Both confessions were recorded.

The second jury convicted him within four hours. Judge Aloise sentenced him to life in prison. Case closed, you might think.

Instead, on the day of his sentencing a largely black crowd appeared in support of him, claiming he had been framed. Two black protesters were arrested. The professionally angry black Assemblyman Charles Barron told the Amsterdam News that Lewis’s DNA could have been fraudulently linked to Vetrano, though he offered no credible evidence.

Case closed? We’ll see.

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Copyright © 2019 Leonard Levitt