He Confessed to Karina Vetrano’s Murder. But Did He Do It?
Chanel Lewis’ DNA matched what was found at the scene of the crime. He told detectives he did it. So why is he pleading not guilty?
Last August, 30-year-old Karina Vetrano went jogging in the afternoon alone through Spring Creek Park in Howard Beach, a quiet, mostly white and middle-class enclave in Queens separated from East New York, one of Brooklyn’s poorer, mostly black neighborhoods, by a creek and the six lanes of the Belt Parkway. Her father, Philip, a retired firefighter who’d been a first responder at Ground Zero and was her usual jogging partner, stayed home with a sore back.
When Karina hadn’t returned or answered his calls a few hours later, Philip called an NYPD chief who lived in the neighborhood and began a search. At around 11 p.m., Philip found his daughter’s scratched and bruised body, partially naked and face down, in the brush several feet away from the running trail. Detectives later said it appeared she’d been hit in the back of the head with a rock, and then raped and strangled. She appeared to have fought furiously, cracking her teeth while biting her attacker and clenching grass in her hands from where she was dragged off the jogging track. DNA was found under her fingernails, on her back, and on her phone in the weeds a few feet away.
The brutal crime made the front pages in New York, and drew national attention as one of two murders that week of women jogging alone. But even as detectives repeatedly canvassed the area, collected DNA samples from hundreds of people, and followed up on hundreds of tips, the investigation dragged on for months with little progress.
That changed in February when NYPD Lt. John Russo, who also lives in Howard Beach, remembered seeing a young black man there over Memorial Day weekend, about two months before the murder. As the man walked around the neighborhood, Russo, with his two daughters in the back of his car, tailed him for an hour before calling 911 and reporting him for suspicious activity.
Officers then stopped and frisked the man, 20-year-old Chanel Lewis, who told them he was just walking around looking for a place to eat. They gave Lewis a ride out of Howard Beach to a McDonald’s in the Rockaways, a neighborhood farther from his family’s home in East New York than he’d been but one with much more public housing.
That was Russo’s account in Queens criminal court last week in proceedings to determine what evidence will be admissible during Lewis’ coming murder trial. Police sources had previously given reporters a slightly different story, in which Russo’s tip this year led murder investigators to find a 911 call from the following day in which the caller named the man as Chanel Lewis and said he had a crowbar and looked like he might be about to break into a property with it. Running Lewis’ name, they found he had three summonses from 2013, one for public urination and two involving breaking park rules in Spring Creek Park.
However they got from Russo’s tip to Lewis, the murder investigators asked Lewis for a swab of his DNA to test against the samples collected at the murder scene, which hadn’t matched anyone in New York state’s vast and fast-growing DNA database. Lewis agreed, and when his sample matched, police brought him in and in 12 hours obtained a murder confession, though he denied sexually assaulting Vetrano.
“I beat her to let my emotions out,” he told them. “I never really meant to hurt her, it just happened.”
“DEMON IN THE WEEDS” screamed the Daily News. The New York Post ran with “Karina suspect wanted to: ‘STAB ALL THE GIRLS.’”
“Karina helped us identify this person,” Chief of Detectives Robert Boyce told reporters after Lewis’ arrest, citing the DNA found at the scene.
In April, after evidence was presented to a grand jury, Lewis was formally arraigned in Queens on 13 charges, including the rape and murder of Vetrano.
“Having DNA and a confession is pretty much the end of a case,” said Ron Kuby, a prominent defense attorney who has represented dozens of clients charged with murder in New York. “It becomes hard for even the most creative lawyer to construct a defense consistent with innocence.”
But Lewis—who lives in East New York with his mother and graduated from a private school dedicated to “children experiencing emotional and behavioral problems”—has pleaded not guilty.
His taped confession to detectives doesn’t make much sense, and the DNA match is less conclusive than law enforcement sources have suggested while discussing the case with the media.
Steven A. Drizin, a former legal director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University and one of the lawyers representing Making a Murderer’s Brandon Dassey, examined the text of Lewis’ confession for The Daily Beast.
“The description of the crime seems like a narrative that may have been fed to him,” Drizin said. “That he just snapped. That he just lost it. People generally just don’t lose it, beat women to death, strangle them, and pull their clothes down for no reason. Because he’s angry that his neighbors played music too loud? That raises concerns for me.”
He added: “There’s nothing in his confession that suggests there was a sexual component to this, and that’s concerning.”
According to documents prepared by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner and turned over to Lewis’ defense team by the Queens district attorney, another set of DNA was found on an Arizona fruit punch bottle at the crime scene that matched a separate individual.
While the medical examiner declared that Lewis’ DNA matched what was found on Vetrano’s cellphone and on her back, they do not state they found a match under Vetrano’s fingernails, contrary to statements made by the NYPD.
Instead, the medical examiner suggests that Lewis’ DNA may be present under Vetrano’s fingernails based on the Forensic Statistical Tool analysis, a controversial testing method used when a mixture of DNA samples are present. Forensic experts have criticized the method, and it was discontinued by the medical examiner’s office this year.
After police matched the DNA Lewis had volunteered, Det. Barry Brown, a 24-year veteran of the NYPD, went to Lewis’ mother’s house at 6 p.m. on Feb. 4 and asked Lewis to go with him to the 75th Precinct in East New York, purportedly for another DNA test.
Lewis agreed, and Brown then cuffed Lewis—though the detective said in court that he did not arrest him—and drove him for a half-hour to the 107th Precinct, in Flushing. He took Lewis first to a holding cell inside the Detective Squad on the second floor and then to the interrogation room, where the cuffs were removed. The room held three chairs and was completely soundproof and outfitted with a two-way mirror and video equipment.
At 6:45 p.m., Brown, joined by Det. Christian Quezada, who stayed silent, asked Lewis: “Do you want to answer questions about the murder?”
“No,” replied Lewis, according to camera footage shown at his pre-trial hearing.
The detectives then left the room, while Lewis remained there alone for two hours. The camera shows him fidgeting, but remaining quiet.
At 8:49 p.m., the detectives returned, and Brown asked again: “Do you want to answer questions about the murder?”
“I don’t know nothing about that,” replied Lewis.
Brown and Quezada left the room again.
At 9:53 p.m., Lewis got up and went to the door to get the attention of the detectives.
“I want to call my parents. I want to go home,” he told them.
Brown said: “You’re under arrest for murder, do you understand what that is?”
“I didn’t do anything,” replied Lewis.
Brown walked away again, and Lewis sat by himself for another hour.
At 10:54 p.m., Lewis got up again and told the detectives he was hungry. Brown then took Lewis out of the interrogation room, and away from the cameras, into the cell inside the Detective Squad where Lewis says he stayed awake, unable to sleep, for the next seven hours, talking to numerous detectives and asking to watch cartoons on the television there.
At 5:50 a.m., Lewis returned to the interrogation room with Brown and Quezada. The camera was recording again, and Lewis—yet to speak to his parents, let alone a lawyer—began to confess.
This is the Queens DA’s transcription of his statement, as read in court (and then sent to reporters) with Det. Brown’s questions removed:
“My house was nice and quiet and then a man came around. He played music and he brought around a lot of his friends. I didn’t like that stuff, I like peace and quiet and so I would go roam the streets and walk around. Sometimes I would go to Howard Beach. I was in Spring Creek Park on August 2 at about 5 o’clock. I was mad and I was walking on the trail listening to music. She was running toward me and I just lost it. She didn’t do anything, I was just mad at that time. I beat her to let my emotions out. I never really meant to hurt her, it just happened. I fought with her for about five minutes. She scratched my face. I hit her about five times and I knocked her out. Her teeth broke. I got madder and madder and I strangled her. After that there was a puddle of water, and she fell into it. She drowned. Her whole face was in the puddle, face up. I pulled her into the bushes by her hands, and that’s when her pants came off. Her phone got lost during the scuffle. I was shaken up by it. My mom saw the scratches on my face and asked what happened. I told her that I fell.”
As the video played in court, The Daily Beast jotted notes as rapidly as possible, as Brown’s questions helped lead Lewis along:
Brown: You said you just lost it?
Lewis: I’ve lost it.
Brown: What was she wearing?
Lewis: A yellow tank top, maybe. [ED: She was wearing a dark sports bra.]
Brown: She saw you?
Brown: Your mother know about this?
Brown: So you saw red and you started beating her.
Lewis: I got scared and I threw her in the bushes and I went home.
Brown: You just lost it?
Lewis: I got so angry.
Brown: You just grabbed her?
Lewis: And when I threw her in the bushes her pants came off.
Brown: Did you take anything from her?
Brown: Where’s her phone?
Lewis: Her phone got lost. Probably just sitting there.
Brown: So her pants came down when you dragged her into the weeds?
Brown: How’d you take her into the weeds?
Lewis: I dragged her.
Brown: And is that where?
Lewis: There wasn’t any sexual assault. I don’t know what she looked like.
Brown: How did you finish her off?
Lewis: I beat her, then strangled her, then she fell into a puddle where she drowned.
Brown: All this because a guy moved into your house and was pissing you off and the neighbors pissed you off too?
Lewis: No, I really try to stay out of trouble.
Brown: When did you hear about it next?
Lewis: The day after. I felt terrible. She didn’t do nothing to deserve this.
Brown: Her teeth broke?
Lewis: Yeah, something like that. She ended up face down in the puddle.
Brown: She didn’t say anything to you? You were just so mad, that’s why you did this?
Shortly after his confession to the detectives, Lewis confessed again to Assistant District Attorneys Peter McCormack and Michael Curtis. At the end of that second confession, Lewis asked McCormack about possible restitution and enrolling in rehabilitation programs, evidently believing the assistant district attorney was in fact his lawyer—not the person who would be prosecuting him.
The Lewis case came four years after the state’s highest court found that the office of Queens District Attorney Richard Brown, who has held that position since 1991, had been wrongfully formalizing the practice of denying arrestees their right to an attorney during questioning and confessions.
That decision gave a Queens man convicted of attempted homicide and assault a new trial because he’d made a videotaped confession before he had been read his Miranda rights, as part of a program in which assistant district attorneys were given scripts to “read to the defendant prior to administering Miranda warnings” that would give the appearance that a confession wouldn’t be used against the defendant. The New York Court of Appeals ruled that the practice—which Brown had previously said was intended “to determine the truth at the earliest possible moment”—“was not effective to secure the defendant’s fundamental constitutional privilege against self-incrimination and right to counsel,” and that the videotaped confession should never have been entered into evidence.
Ultimately, the court ruled that the office’s actions regarding closed-door confessions were “unconstitutional.”
That ruling, and pressure from groups like the Innocence Project and members of the Central Park Five, spurred Albany finally to tackle the issue of interrogations conducted without lawyers present. Currently, the NYPD has a “policy” that all interrogations be videotaped, something that former Police Commissioner Ray Kelly promised would spread to all detective units by 2015. Progress on full implementation has stalled out, and besides the internal “policy,” before the state law, there was nothing that required the NYPD to videotape Lewis’ interrogation.
In April, the state Legislature finally passed a law mandating that all interrogations by police be videotaped, beginning in April 2018, too late for Lewis. (And even then, his formal interrogation and confession began after he’d been alone in the precinct with the detectives for hours.)
In searching for a suspect in the Vetrano killing after finding no match in the state DNA database, the NYPD took cheek swabs from at least 163 people and compared them to the samples of DNA found at the crime scene. It is unclear how the police determined whose DNA to test. The head of the NYPD’s Forensic Investigation Division told The New York Times that the department used a contentious method called phenotyping to determine that the suspect was “was of African descent” (Lewis’ attorneys say they have not been informed that any phenotyping was done to narrow the pool of suspects).
The results of those 163 tests were prepared by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner and turned over to Lewis’ defense team; two of the samples were deemed to be matches.
Investigators found a DNA match for Lewis on two places at the crime scene—Vetrano’s cellphone and on her back, according to the documents, which were reviewed by The Daily Beast.
Those results also note that material found underneath Vetrano’s fingernails was part of a complex mixture of several people’s DNA, and that Lewis’ DNA could not be excluded from that mixture. Despite comments made by NYPD officials in the press conference following Lewis’ arrest, this was not a match at all. The proprietary method the medical examiner uses to determine these types of matches where mixtures of DNA are present, called the Forensic Statistical Tool or FST, does not affirmatively say Lewis’ DNA is present underneath Vetrano’s fingernails.
The second DNA match was found at the crime scene on an Arizona fruit punch bottle, according to the documents. Like Lewis’ DNA allegedly found on Vetrano’s back and cellphone, this wasn’t a mixture. The identity of this second match has been redacted.
FST, used by the the medical examiner’s office since 2011, was discontinued at the beginning of this year, following a ProPublica investigation that found serious flaws in the software’s design and accuracy. In September, New York City defense lawyers asked the state’s inspector general to investigate “serious malfeasance” and “a pattern of obfuscation” by the medical examiner’s office in relation to its use of FST.
The program makes its best guess about what possible DNA profiles are present as part of a mixture but never provides concrete evidence of a person’s DNA being found at a crime scene, said Erin Murphy, a professor at New York University and an expert on the use of DNA in the courtroom.
“It’s been well-established that FST is an unreliable, inadequately validated program. There’s a reason why OCME has stopped using it,” said Murphy. “Any result that was generated by this program has to be re-examined.”
While OCME refused to answer most of The Daily Beast’s questions, when asked if it stood by the results of the FST test conducted on the mixture found beneath Vetrano’s fingernails, OCME replied, “Yes.”
The Queens district attorney relied heavily on the use of FST in past criminal prosecutions. Eric Rosenbaum, an assistant district attorney and head of the DNA Prosecutions Unit in Queens, described FST to ProPublica as an “extremely powerful tool because it is devastating in court.”
In a 2015 case, the Queens DA’s office insisted that DNA evidence, which consisted of a mixture of three people’s DNA, placed 36-year-old Terrell Gills at the scene of one of a string of armed robberies in Jamaica, Queens, even though a different suspect had confessed to one of the robberies and taken a plea deal.
Gills was held on Rikers for 18 months, while the district attorney declined to drop the charges.
“The evidence against him was strong,” an assistant district attorney told the Times. “We had an obligation to bring the case against him.” Eventually Gills won acquittal at trial. He’s planning on suing the city over the arrest.
So far, the Queens district attorney has been resisting Legal Aid’s requests for more information about the DNA matches.
“The DA’s position is that none of the DNA found matched anyone at the crime scene, so we’re not entitled to see it,” said Jenny Cheung, one of Lewis’ Legal Aid lawyers, referring to the DA’s refusal to hand over the full results of the 163 other DNA tests, as well as Lewis’ full DNA profile.
If the DA eventually hands over Lewis’ full DNA profile, as well as those of the others who received cheeks swabs, Legal Aid has said it will then independently run tests on each to determine the accuracy of the matches.
The NYPD and the Queens district attorney’s office both declined to comment for this story.
In October, Lewis’ lawyers dropped an ongoing mental evaluation of Lewis and decided instead to focus on the DNA evidence and the circumstances of his confession.
“This was the first time this person ever spent a night away from one of his parents. This is how he spends the night. In custody of the NYPD,” Robert Moeller, one of Lewis’ attorneys, told The Daily Beast.
“This is not the kind of person who had a normal childhood, having sleepovers with friends. He spent every night with mom and dad, and now he’s in the custody of the police.”
Philip Vetrano says he has no doubt that Chanel Lewis killed and sexually assaulted his daughter.
“There’s more evidence against this animal than any case ever,” he said. “There’s no two ways about it. There’s nuclear DNA in three locations.
“This is not a color issue, this is not a neighborhood issue, this is an evil person taking the life of an extraordinary young girl, and that’s all there is.”
While the confessions were played in court last week, Vetrano’s mother, Cathy, openly sobbing at points, clutched a large gold crucifix and waved it in Lewis’ direction. Lewis’ mother, Veta, was seated across the courtroom and directly behind her son, reading from a Bible.
Lewis kept turning to try to see his mother. Each time he did so, a court officer would command him to look ahead.
—with additional reporting by Christopher Robbins