With Hints of the Central Park Five, Activists Charge That Disabled Black Man Possibly Railroaded Into Murder Charge

Chanel Lewis appears in court during his retrial in New York, Wednesday, March 20, 2019. Lewis is accused of killing a woman who was attacked while running near her family’s New York City home.
Photo: Curtis Means (The Daily Mail via AP, Pool)

On Tuesday, Chanel Lewis was sentenced to life without parole for the murder of 30-year-old Karina Vetrano, who was raped and strangled in August 2016.

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There was an uproar in the Queens County Criminal courtroom after the judge rendered Lewis’ sentence, as some believe that the 22-year-old developmentally disabled Brooklyn man did not receive a fair trial in the high profile case.

Since Lewis’ conviction April 1—after five hours of jury deliberations in a retrialan activist named Mo Glover started a Color of Change petition, “Chanel Lewis Deserves a Fair Trial,” alleging that Queens District Attorney Richard A. Brown and the judge presiding over the case ignored critical evidence of juror misconduct and condoned racial profiling.

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An email dated Tuesday morning read in part [bold emphasis theirs]:

Chanel, who recently graduated from the Michael De Porres School for developmentally delayed children, was handed a guilty verdict after just five hours of jury deliberation in his second trial, the first having been declared a mistrial with a hung jury.

One of the jurors from his second trial has already come forward anonymously to say he is concerned they may have convicted the wrong man, claiming that they were never given access to Chanel’s taped confessions, and that when the jury alerted Judge Michael Aloise that they were deadlocked, he pressured them to come to a verdict that night, anyway.

Chanel’s conviction comes on the heels of an anonymous tip that has revealed the existence of a previously unreported NYPD database of DNA swabs of over 350 Black men from the neighborhood. Many of these men, like Chanel, had no prior contact with the criminal justice system and were questioned and swabbed despite the fact that the NYPD’s investigation named two “‘jacked up’ white men” as its initial suspects.

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The New York Daily News reports that Lewis was supposed to be sentenced last week, but that it was “postponed by a 11th-hour legal battle over alleged juror misconduct.”

“I’m innocent,” Lewis insisted, according to the News. “I’m sorry for the family’s loss, but I didn’t do this.”

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According to the New York Times, there was one juror who said that he was “improperly pressured” to render a guilty verdict, but Queens Criminal Court Judge Michael Aloise has no doubt about Lewis’ guilt, saying he expects Lewis will eventually admit to the vicious crime.

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“When you decide to make that decision,” the judge told Lewis, “you’re going to do it inside a cage.”

Katrina Vetrano’s parents were in the courtroom for Tuesday’s judgement and were justifiably angry and emotional.

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Philip Vetrano, who was with police when they found Katrina’s body, said that Lewis was “a pathetic, evil coward,” who he hopes dies “a million deaths.” Her mother, Cathie Vetrano, said Lewis “carried out the work of Satan.”

But do they have the right man?

Chanel Lewis’ mom says no.

“As a mother, I still believe, and I know, my son Chanel is innocent. Chanel did not kill this lady,” she said. “The judge tried to sentence him without compassion. … What he did today was not justice for Chanel.”

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Glover’s petition, which calls for a new trial, notes that Lewis became a suspect months after the murder, “after being profiled by an officer in the neighborhood who followed him for ‘looking suspicious.’”

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The New York Times reports that Lewis and Lt. John Russo encountered each other for the first time on Memorial Day in 2016 and that Russo followed Lewis for over an hour with his children in the car. It reports:

Lieutenant Russo, dressed in a tank top and shorts, was pulling up to his home. Mr. Lewis, wearing a track suit with the hood up, was walking slowly, stopping to look at houses, the lieutenant later testified. The man made Lieutenant Russo suspicious, he testified. So, with his two young daughters in the back seat, he trailed Mr. Lewis for more than an hour before losing sight of him on a commercial strip.

The next day, May 31, Lieutenant Russo spotted the 20-year-old again nearby. Mr. Lewis was pacing outside a parking lot. A 911 caller had reported seeing a man in a track suit going in and out of yards with a crowbarand said he had seen the man the day before, too. After Lieutenant Russo drove over and found Mr. Lewis, he called the local precinct. Five officers pulled up and stopped and frisked Mr. Lewis.

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But police had to let Lewis go because he had no crowbar, and there was no evidence to hold him. The Times reports that it was after the high-profile case had stalled for a few months when Russo brought Lewis back into the mix, saying he remembers a “suspicious” black man from months before.

Police then took Lewis’ DNA which they allege was found at the crime scene, but in the petition, Glover says that this evidence is possibly tainted.

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“In both trials, Chanel’s defense has pointed to the ways that the collection and transportation of DNA samples from the crime scene were mishandled by the NYPD. And they say that during both trials, they were not alerted to the existence of the DNA database by the prosecution at all, a clear Brady violation,” it reads.

The email also references the Central Park Five case, yet another racially charged sexual assault in New York, wherein in 1989, five black and Hispanic teens were convicted of raping a white woman in Central Park. In that case, DNA evidence exonerated the young men (who spent between 7 and 13 years in prison); the Central Park Five, who received millions from New York City for their wrongful convictions, will have their story dramatized on Netflix next month in an Ava DuVernay directed series.

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The petition continues:

There is a long history of faulty, inconsistent DNA testing and coerced confessions being used to secure the false convictions of Black people in this country. As a Black man and a disabled person who was not granted access to the support or advocacy that was his constitutional right, Chanel Lewis’ case sets a precedent for continued profiling within a racially biased and unbalanced judiciary system. This is not right. 

Despite allegations of juror and prosecutorial misconduct, and despite the fact that Judge Aloise was given credible evidence that pointed to the potential existence of another suspect, both he and the Queens DA’s office have insisted that they have found Katrina Vetrano’s killer.

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The petition asks that Queens DA Brown speak publicly about the “prosecutorial misconduct” related to Lewis’ case, but for now, Chanel Lewis, a young disabled black man, is in jail for the rest of his life.

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About the author

Angela Helm

Ms. Bronner Helm is a Contributing Editor at The Root. Mouthy Black Girl. Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Fellow. Shea Butter Feminist. Virgo Sun, Aries Moon.