The accused killer of Howard Beach jogger Karina Vetrano and the dead woman’s parents exchanged stares in a Queens courtroom Thursday, a day after what would have been the victim’s 31st birthday.
While in Queens State Supreme Court Justice Gregory Lasak’s courtroom for a pretrial hearing, Chanel Lewis, 20, kept turning back to glance at Philip and Cathy Vetrano, Karina’s parents, who sat stone-faced in the public seating area with other family and friends. Philip Vetrano later said that he and his wife stared right back at Lewis.
“I don’t think it was malicious,” Philip Vetrano said of Lewis’s action. “He just looked at us. He knows what he did.”
During the short court proceeding, a Legal Aid Society defense attorney said Lewis, who is accused of strangling and sexually assaulting Vetrano on Aug. 2, 2016, had been undergoing a psychological evaluation that was expected to continue for a few more weeks. After defense experts prepare the evaluation, it will be shared with Queens prosecutors who will probably have their own experts examine Lewis.
Lewis, of East New York, was arrested in February on charges he murdered Vetrano, an avid runner who had a master’s from St John’s University, as she jogged through Spring Creek Park near her home. In statements he gave to police, Lewis said he just snapped when he saw Vetrano and attacked her. The young woman’s body was found by her father and police in the grassy park area the night she was killed. Police said Vetrano’s clothing was in disarray and there were signs she had been sexually assaulted.
Vetrano’s death rocked the normally quiet Howard Beach community, sparking town meetings about security in the park. White ribbons, some of which remain on trees and telephone pools, were displayed as a sign of solidarity. Police assigned a task force to investigate the case, which dragged on for six months before a check of NYPD stop reports found entries that mentioned Lewis. Police said he later admitted the killing and voluntarily gave a DNA sample that matched material found on Vetrano’s body.
During Wednesday’s court session, Lasak scheduled a date for pretrial hearings, including one to deal with whether Lewis’s statements to police were voluntary. Lewis is next due in court on Sept. 7.
After the court session, Cathy Vetrano stood up and silently stared at Lewis’s family members, none of whom appeared to notice her action.
Outside court none of Lewis’s family would comment to reporters. Defense attorney Robert Moeller said it was unclear when the psychological evaluation of Lewis would be completed.
“I am all for due process,” Philip Vetrano told Newsday later, adding that he wants the defense to do all they can to make sure nothing could later be used to attack what he said was a strong case.