Defense attorneys for Chanel Lewis, the Black man accused of assaulting and murdering jogger Karina Vetrano nearly three years ago in Queens, New York, have accused the NYPD of racial bias towards their client, after an anonymous letter has come forward alleging foul-play.
According to Lewis’ lawyers, the letter was delivered Friday afternoon to their office, the day before jury deliberations on Lewis’ legal fate.
CBS News reports that the anonymous letter is said to be from a law enforcement source, who reportedly alerted defense attorneys to alleged exculpatory evidence needed for their case. The source further claims that this evidence was withheld intentionally from Lewis’ defense team.
The letter states that during the initial two weeks of the search for the late 30-year-old Vetrano’s killer(s), the New York Police Department stated on “several occasions” that they were looking for one or more Caucasian assailants. It even went on to detail that the NYPD was searching for “two jacked up white guys who are from Howard Beach,” as per NYPD Chief Michael Kemper.
A defense lawyer for Lewis, who is African American, is now claiming that the police used an unwarranted “race-biased dragnet” to collect DNA samples from 360 black men before eventually targeting their client. Lewis was eventually apprehended six months into the investigation after Detective Lt. John Russo included him in a suspicious persons report. Lewis voluntarily produced a saliva swab for police while inside his East New York home, with his mother as witness. Lewis’ DNA is said to have matched the DNA on Vetrano’s bloody body at the crime scene.
Lewis was later charged with the sexual abuse and murder of Vetrano. It is believed that she was assaulted while running through her Howard Beach neighborhood in Queens on August 2, 2016. Lewis’ first trial ended in a hung jury in November 2018.
According to prosecutors at the Queens District Attorneys office, Lewis also confessed to the murder, although his defense has argued that the confession was coerced. Tina Luongo, who is part of Lewis’ defense team and her staff at the Legal Aid Society, says the anonymous letter delivered on Friday demonstrates key evidence had been withheld during the retrial.
“We received troubling and reliable information indicating that the police withheld critical… information about other potential suspects, which was never turned over to the defense,” Luongo said in a statement to CBS News.
“Moreover, we learned that the police approached our Mr. Lewis to obtain a DNA swab as part of a race-biased dragnet, which involved the swabbing of over 360 African-American men in Howard Beach and other neighboring sections of Brooklyn and Queens. In light of this case-altering information, we plan to submit motions on Monday seeking a hearing as to the prosecutions failure to disclose this exculpatory evidence and a new hearing challenging the Department’s unconstitutional racial profiling throughout their investigation,” Luongo said.
In another statement to CBS News, Sgt. Brendan Ryan stood by the department’s charges, claiming that Lewis was indeed their guy.
“The NYPD has painstakingly investigated the murder of Karina Vetrano, and as the Queens District Attorney’s prosecution demonstrates, the evidence clearly shows that Chanel Lewis is responsible for her death. Multiple legal hearings and two criminal trials, over more than two years, have already exhaustively examined the issues in this anonymous, 11th-hour letter, a missive riddled with falsehoods and inaccuracies,” Ryan said.
Lewis’ lawyers said they will file motions in State Supreme Court in Queens on Monday, seeking a last-minute hearing to for Lewis to determine if evidence was indeed withheld in his case, as per the anonymous source.