Attorneys say Chanel Lewis’ murder conviction in killing of Howard Beach jogger based on ‘racial dragnet’

Lawyers for Chanel Lewis filed a motion to vacate conviction in the killing of Howard Beach jogger Karina Vetrano (l.), saying he was the victim of “racial dragnet” by the NYPD.
Photos courtesy of Instagram (l.) and Ellis Kaplan

The Brooklyn man serving a life sentence for the brutal slaying of Howard Beach jogger Karina Vetrano in 2016 was wrongfully convicted, according to a motion to vacate filed in Queens Supreme Court on Monday, Aug. 21.

Civil rights attorney Ronald Kuby maintains his client, 27-year-old Chanel Lewis, should have his 2019 murder conviction overturned because the Queens District Attorney’s Office relied on DNA evidence that violated his constitutional rights. NYPD investigators relied on testing from Parabon Nanolabs, which at the time was an unlicensed vendor according to the 65-page court filing.

Lawyers for Chanel Lewis filed a motion to vacate conviction in the killing of Howard Beach jogger Karina Vetrano saying he was the victim of “racial dragnet” by the NYPD. Photo by Ellis Kaplan

Lewis, after a second trial, was convicted of killing Vetrano as she jogged through Spring Creek Park just blocks from her 84th Street home on Aug. 2, 2016. The jury found Lewis guilty of beating, choking and sexually assaulting his 30-year-old victim to death nearly five months after a mistrial was declared in his first trial after the jury was deadlocked just before Thanksgiving 2018.

A six-month manhunt for Vetrano’s killer came up empty until detectives caught a break in the case in February 2017 when an NYPD lieutenant recalled seeing Lewis weeks earlier near the park where Vetrano was killed on an unrelated matter. Detectives questioned Lewis and obtained from him a DNA sample which was said to match the DNA profile of Vetrano’s killer.

According to trial testimony, Lewis entered the park on the night of the murder, apparently angered by a neighbor playing loud music. He encountered Vetrano while she ran through the park and, without saying a word, went on the attack, repeatedly punching her in the face and tearing her clothes off.

Karina Vetrano was beaten, choked and sexually assaulted in Spring Creek Park in 2016 just blocks from her Howard Beach home. Photo via Instagram

After sexually assaulting her, prosecutors said, Lewis choked Vetrano to death, even as she fought back. Crime scene investigators later recovered her killer’s DNA from under her fingernails.

“How this racial dragnet led specifically to Chanel Lewis’ door remains unknown; the fact that it did and that it was withheld is newly discovered and undeniable,” Kuby wrote in the court filing. “Important questions remain about the reliability of DNA phenotyping and the methodologies employed by Parabon NanoLabs.”

In filing the vacate motion, Kuby and co-counsel Rhidaya Trivedi call on the court to throw out Lewis’ conviction and either dismiss the indictment against him or order a new trial.

“We do not comment on pending litigation, but, as the public record shows, Chanel Lewis was approached and asked for a consensual DNA sample as a result of a police encounter near the scene of the homicide, as well as other encounters with police during which he expressed a desire to hurt girls,” a Queens District Attorney’s Office spokesperson said. “He was not approached as part of a systematic effort by the NYPD to obtain samples, or in connection with any work done by Parabon Labs. Additionally, the trial record shows that DNA tests revealed that the defendant’s DNA matched DNA recovered from the victim’s neck and cellphone.”

In 2021, more than 40,000 people signed a petition demanding justice for Lewis, claiming he was an innocent man. Lewis remains incarcerated at the Great Meadow Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison in upstate Comstock, New York.