More than 40,000 New Yorkers have signed on to a petition urging Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz to reopen the conviction of Chanel Lewis, the Brooklyn resident found guilty of murdering Howard Beach resident Karina Vetrano back in 2016.
That petition was delivered to Katz’s Kew Gardens office on Tuesday afternoon by a group of community activists and leaders including members of Color Of Change, VOCAL-NY and Housing Justice for All.
The murder stunned the quiet Queens community of Howard Beach and much of the city. Vetrano, 30, was found sexually assaulted and fatally strangled inside Spring Creek Park on Aug. 2, 2016 after going for a run and never returning home.
Lewis was arrested months later following a police investigation, but his first murder trial ended with a hung jury. He was convicted of first-degree murder at his second trial and is now serving a prison sentence of life without the possibility of parole.
Protesters, however, listed several criteria that they believe depict Lewis’ innocence, such as a reported history prosecutorial misconduct by prosecutor Brad Leventhal, concerns about racial profiling, mid-trial disclosure of significant scientific evidence, and claims that the Lewis was coerced by police into making a confession.
amNewYork Metro reached out to District Attorney Melinda Katz’s office for comment, but a spokesperson declined to provide a statement on the matter.
Assembling across the street from DA Katz’s office on 125-01 Queens Blvd, demonstrators brandished signs calling for a retrial and erected a podium plastered with newspaper clippings involving the nearly half-decade old case.
Community activists Mike Thomas, Tiffany Cabán, Erica Ford, wrongfully convicted survivors, and even Chanel Lewis’ own mother led the charge, which asks Katz to reopen the case, something they say she promised to do while running for office.
Mike Thomas, a community advocate and retired law enforcement officer believes Lewis’ race played a deciding factor in the conviction. He began his speech by stating that his heart goes out to both Karina Vetrano’s family and the Lewis family who have both been under turmoil due to this case.
“We are here today to correct this injustice that was done to this young man. They want to tell you that this case is not about race, but it is. Chanel Lewis is in jail because he simply was walking through Howard Beach, minding his business,” Thomas said.
He added that Lewis was stopped four times after being racially profiled by officers, but despite the NYPD’s policy on filing a worksheet report for stop and frisk, no paperwork was ever filled out.
“Chanel Lewis is convicted of a murder. How can this young man walk into Howard Beach, kill this young lady and not be seen on any camera or cell phone or anywhere? It’s unconscionable and it makes no sense. We want to say to DA Katz today, get it right, we want this overturned, and we want a new trial,” Thomas demanded.
He cited the infamous Central Park Five case as an example of racial profiling and wrongful conviction.
Lewis was sentenced in 2019, and as Katz campaigned for the Queens District Attorney seat, she vowed to look into the case and discuss it with the Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU). Activists say that Lewis’ situation meets the guidelines for the CIU to reopen the case, calling it a wrongful conviction and demanding that he be released on bail during that time.
Derrick Hamilton, a man who spent 23 years falsely imprisoned for a murder he did not commit, also joined the fight for Lewis’ case to be reopened.
“I too know how it feels to be Chanel Lewis. False confessions are one of the leading causes in wrongful convictions. If you look at Chanel’s confession, you see at the end of it he is speaking to a detective saying: ‘Are you my lawyer?’ That in itself should have prohibited it from being used in a Queens courtroom. I stand here today to order Melinda Katz to deliver justice, not ask. You are the District Attorney of Queens, your integrity means everything to that office,” Hamilton said.
Chants began to ring out, “No Justice no, no peace,” and “Melinda Katz, we want a retrial” as protesters marched to the District Attorney’s locked building. Advocates cited that the office is public and requested they be permitted to hand over a box filled with some 40,000 signatures.
After several minutes a staff member emerged to retrieve the petition before the group continued to chant “Reopen the case!”