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Chanel Lewis confession, DNA evidence admissible in Karina Vetrano killing case, judge rules

Two years after the death of the Howard Beach jogger, defense lawyers unsuccessfully argued that a 2016 police stop was improper.

Lawyers for Chanel Lewis, above with NYPD detectives

Lawyers for Chanel Lewis, above with NYPD detectives in 2017, failed to have DNA evidence that cops say links him to the 2016 killing of Howard Beach jogger Katrina Vetrano tossed from the case. Photo Credit: Charles Eckert

A state judge in Queens on Monday shot down an effort by lawyers for the Brooklyn man accused of killing Howard Beach jogger Karina Vetrano to keep his confession and DNA evidence out of the case.

The ruling by Queens State Supreme Court Judge Gregory Lasak in the case against Chanel Lewis, 21, means there will likely be a trial — or a disposition by plea bargaining — on charges Lewis killed Vetrano, 30, on Aug. 2, 2016, as she jogged in Spring Creek Park near her home.

In court papers, Lewis’s Legal Aid Society defense attorneys argued that an initial police stop of Lewis in Howard Beach about two months before the killing was improper. During that stop on May 31, 2016, police asked Lewis for his name and address and later used that information to get a DNA sample as part of the Vetrano investigation.

The defense said the May 2016 stop of Lewis was unlawful because the cops didn’t have probable cause to approach him. But prosecutors said the stop and questioning of Lewis was permissible since it was based on a 911 call about someone possibly trespassing or loitering in backyards.

In his ruling, Lasak said U.S. Supreme Court precedent holds that the identity of a defendant is never suppressible even if preceded by an unlawful arrest, search or interrogation. Lasak said Lewis’s statements to cops were voluntary.

Lasak also found that Lewis, who was arrested in connection with Vetrano's killing on Feb. 5, 2017, voluntarily consented to give police a sample of his DNA, which investigators said matched the unknown genetic material found on Vetrano’s body.

A break in the case came when NYPD Lt. John Russo remembered the May 2016 stop of Lewis in Howard Beach and found his name in a cop’s memo book. Detectives then questioned Lewis at his home, got his DNA sample and later took him into custody. Police say Lewis told investigators he strangled and beat Vetrano because he “just lost it.”

Outside the courthouse, Rev. Kevin McCall, affiliated with Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, said he believed Lewis “was coerced into this confession and we are sticking by that 100 percent.” A Legal Aid spokesman said the group disagreed with Lasak’s legal reasoning and anticipated more litigation on the issue of the legality of the way officers stopped Lewis.

Vetrano’s mother Catherine said the public should study the DNA evidence and confession closely.

“The evidence should be looked at,” she said, “my daughter’s murder, violent murder, it should never be anything more than that what this is about. This isn’t a racial thing, we don’t want it to be like that.”

In a statement through a spokesman, Queens District Attorney Richard Brown said prosecutors were pleased with the decision.

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