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Jurors Showing More and More Savvy Toward Trial Evidence

by Ed Lyon 

For many decades, prosecutors have been the true kings of U.S. courtrooms. Longtime Dallas, Texas, prosecutor Henry Wade attained infamy for stating, “Guilty ones are easy to convict. It takes real effort to convict the innocent.”

His Houston, Texas, counterpart John Holmes gained a like measure of notoriety for publically stating, “I can get a ham sandwich indicted and convicted.” 

A recent deadlocked New York state jury shows this is not a general truism any longer with Wade and Holmes probably spinning in their graves over the turn of events. 

The August 2, 2016, murder of 30-year-old jogger Karina Vetrano has been one of the more sensational cases of the last few years in New York, the kind of case that fuels the plot lines of television who-done-its like Law & Order SVU. Her partly clad, strangled, and beaten corpse was discovered in Queens’ Howard Beach section, close to a Spring Creek Park jogging trail. 

Chanel Lewis, described as a black man with a learning disability, was seen by New York City Police Lieutenant John Russo wandering around Howard Beach three months before Vetrano’s murder. Lewis, then 22, was wearing a hoodie on a hot day in the mostly white neighborhood. Russo saw Lewis again in Howard Beach the following day and had two patrol officers roust him. Six months after Vetrano’s murder, Russo recounted his sightings of Lewis to investigators, who then paid Lewis a visit. 

Lewis gave detectives a DNA sample. Prosecutor Brad A. Leventhal stated that Lewis’ DNA matched DNA on Vetrano’s neck, cellphone, and detritus from her fingernails. After an intense, four-hour long marathon interrogation, Lewis confessed on video to the murder but erred on a few minor details like saying Vetrano had drowned in a puddle when she had actually been strangled. During trial, he mistook a prosecutor for his own attorney, appearing disoriented and confused throughout. 

Defense attorney Jenny Cheung’s case highlighted the real possibility of DNA transference and stressed the overly long interrogation. Jurors, showing an unusually high level of awareness, questioned why so many police personnel handled the DNA evidence prior to giving it to the lab and felt Lewis might have been coerced into confessing. The panel was unanimous in its decision that Lewis did not sexually assault Vetrano and was split 7 to 5 on the murder charge. 

After only 13 hours of deliberations, the jury sent a letter to the trial judge outlining their position and explaining their dilemma, asking for instructions. The judge immediately declared a mistrial.

Prosecutor Leventhal promised to retry Lewis in 2019. Part of his case had included downloaded images of Vetrano’s crime scene in Lewis’ cellphone and a doctor’s testimony that injuries to Lewis’ hand were consistent with punching someone. Leventhal stated this evidence to be “overwhelming.” The jury did not buy it the first time. Maybe Levanthal should just sit back, relax, and try a ham sandwich or two. 



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