Jurors in the trial of a New York man who confessed to police that he beat and strangled a jogger before leaving her body in a marsh more than two years ago found themselves deadlocked on his guilt Tuesday night, triggering a mistrial.
Chanel Lewis, 21, is charged with murder and sexual abuse in the Aug. 2, 2016, death of Karina Vetrano, 30, who was reported missing when she failed to return home after a routine run in her Queens neighborhood.
NBC New York reported that Vetrano’s body was found several hours later in Howard Beach’s Spring Creek Park by a group of searchers that included her father, Phil Vetrano. The grieving father broke down as he testified about that discovery, the news station said.
“I let out this sound that I -- that I never made before or since,” Phil Vetrano told the court. “It was, I don’t know. It was like a wail. And then I screamed, ‘My baby, my baby.’”
A Vetrano family member blurted out, “Oh my God” Tuesday when the judge declared a mistrial, according to NBC.
The New York Times reported that Justice Michael B. Aloise granted a defense motion for a mistrial after the jurors, who had deliberated for 1½ days, said they were hopelessly split on Lewis’ guilt.
“I’m inclined to believe them,” Aloise said, according to the Times.
The New York CBS affiliate reported that jurors, during their deliberations, reviewed Lewis’ alleged confession and a map he drew during his police interview, along with cellphone tower maps, phone records for Lewis and Vetrano, 74 pages of DNA expert testimony, a DNA chart and Vetrano’s autopsy photos.
Members of the Vetrano family declined to speak to reporters as they left the courthouse. Queens District Attorney’s Office prosecutors said they would retry the case, with a new trial set to begin Jan. 22.
Surveillance footage shot near Spring Creek Park shows Karina Vetrano entering the park on her final run Aug. 2, 2016. Her body was found about five hours later.
The Times reported that lead prosecutor Brad Leventhal described Lewis as a loner with no job, girlfriend or friends who was motivated by “anger and sexual frustration.” The prosecutor argued during closing arguments that the evidence in the case, which included the confession and Lewis’ DNA found under Vetrano’s fingernails, pointed in one direction.
“If you follow the evidence, it leads you to one location; it leads you to one person. Right over there,” Leventhal said, pointing at the defendant. “Chanel Lewis. Murderer. Killer.”
CBS New York reported that Lewis was also linked to DNA found on Vetrano’s neck and cellphone.
Lewis’ defense attorneys argued that aside from the confession, which they said was coerced, the case against their client was thin, the Times reported. They tried to cast doubt on the veracity of the DNA evidence, claiming that the small amounts of DNA the medical examiner found could have been transferred by Lewis and Vetrano touching the same surface somewhere.
“People’s DNA can end up in places that they’ve never been,” defense attorney Robert Moeller said, according to the newspaper.
The defense also argued that the crime scene had been contaminated, in part by Vetrano’s father cradling her body in his arms when he found her.
“You can't blame Mr. Vetrano for what he did,” a defense attorney said, according to NBC. “He did what any dad would do.”
Lewis first became a suspect in the jogger’s slaying after a police lieutenant told investigators he had spotted him in Howard Beach in the months before Vetrano was killed, the Times reported. Lt. John Russo told jurors during Lewis’ trial that the defendant stood out because he wore thick clothing despite the summer heat.
Investigators later reviewed a 911 call that placed Lewis in the same area of the park where Vetrano was found, the newspaper reported. They went to Lewis’ home and obtained a DNA sample from him that ultimately matched what was found on the victim, the Times said.
He was arrested about six months after the slaying.
Lewis told detectives and prosecutors during a four-hour interrogation that he was angry at his neighbor for playing loud music when he encountered Vetrano on a trail in Spring Creek Park and turned that anger on her.
Lewis said he grabbed Vetrano as she ran by and began beating her so viciously that he broke her teeth. He said she clawed at his face before she lost consciousness.
“She didn’t yell. She was finished,” Lewis reportedly said in his confession. “I finished her off; I strangled her. She fell into the puddle and drowned. I got up and wiped off the blood. And she was calm, she was in the pool (of water). It was like all the way over (her face).”
The CBS station reported that Lewis’ lawyers argued that their client confessed only after he had been left alone in a windowless room for hours. He just wanted to go home, they said.
The confession video, which was first made public during a court hearing last November, indicated that Lewis thought he would face no jail time for the alleged crime he was confessing to.
“I can straighten out my stuff?” he asked a prosecutor. “Well, you’re the DA right? Where do we go from here? Is there a restitution program or something?”
Lewis denied sexually abusing Vetrano in his statement to authorities, despite the fact that her jogging shorts were pulled down when her body was found.
The victim’s autopsy contradicted his denial, with the medical examiner finding trauma consistent with sexual assault, the Times reported. It also showed Vetrano died of strangulation, not drowning.
Prosecutors said that after detectives obtained a DNA sample from Lewis, the defendant conducted 137 web searches on his phone. Some included the phrases “Miranda rights” and “sacrament of penance,” the Times said.
The Legal Aid Society, which provided Lewis’ defense attorneys, said in a statement after the mistrial that the agency would continue defending him in January, when he again faces trial.
“As we have said since Day 1, this case is far from conclusive and the jury’s deadlock proves this,” the statement said. “The death of Karina Vetrano is tragic, and our hearts go out to her family, but the rush to criminalize our client is not the answer nor is it justice.”
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