A defense lawyer for a man charged with killing a New York City woman says police used a "race-biased dragnet" to collect DNA samples from 360 black men before targeting their client. An attorney for Chanel Lewis made the new claim after an anonymous letter was reportedly delivered on Friday afternoon to defense lawyers on the eve of jury deliberations three years after Karina Vetrano was killed while jogging in Queens.
Lewis was charged with sexually abusing and killing Vetrano as she was 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 confessed to the murder and has given DNA samples that are a match to genetic samples found on Vetrano's body and cell phone.
Lewis' defense, which includes Tina Luongo's staff at the Legal Aid Society, has argued his confession was coerced by the NYPD and that 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."
The letter containing the new allegations was delivered to the office of Lewis' defense attorneys, the New York Times reported. The letter, which was first reported by the The Daily News, claims to be written by an NYPD detective and suggests, among other claims, that during the opening weeks of the investigations, NYPD Chief Michael Kemper "stated on several occasions at these meetings" police were "looking for two jacked up whit guys who are from Howard Beach."
Lewis, who is African American, was eventually apprehended six months into the investigation after Detective Lt. John Russo included him in. Lewis produced a saliva swab for police inside his East New York home, one that matched DNA found on Vetrano's bloody body at the crime scene.
In a statement to CBS News, Sgt. Brendan Ryan said, "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."
Lewis' lawyers said they will file motions in State Supreme Court in Queens on Monday, seeking a last-minute hearing to determine whether crucial evidence was withheld by prosecutors.