When it comes to evidence that will nail a conviction, little is better than a confession. Of that “little,” there’s DNA, the “gold standard” of forensic evidence. While people have come to realize that targets can be made to confess to crimes they didn’t commit, as in the Central Park 5 case, Marty Tankleff and now from the pop “Making A Murderer,” Brendan Dassey, forensic evidence has maintained its shine. Maybe the gold standard is beginning to tarnish.
The trial of the man accused of murdering Karina Vetrano, a 30-year-old woman who was killed while jogging in a Queens park in 2016, ended in a mistrial Tuesday night.
After a day and a half of deliberations, 12 jurors returned to the courtroom split on whether to find the man, Chanel Lewis, 22, guilty of the murder and sexual abuse of Ms. Vetrano on an early August afternoon in Spring Creek Park.
It was a horrible crime. The cops focused on Lewis, who had no criminal record, after Lt. John Russo claimed to remember him loitering in the park, wearing heavy clothing in the summer, avoiding police. An unrelated 911 call placed Lewis in the park the day of the crime. Thin gruel, but the pressure to close horrific cases is strong.
Soon after they identified him as a possible suspect, the police confronted Mr. Lewis at his home and asked him for a DNA sample. He confessed to the crime during a four-hour interrogation after his DNA matched a sample found on Ms. Vetrano. “I was beating her and was mad at her,” he told a Queens assistant district attorney in an interview that was videotaped.
Having gotten a hit on the DNA, there was no doubt they had the guy. After that, it was just a matter of getting him to make his conviction easier by confessing. This isn’t hard to do under the best of circumstances, and the Queens DA uses a particularly improper trick of arresting people, then denying them access to counsel while questioning them. deceiving defendants by telling them this will be their “chance” to tell their side of the story.
Lewis, who was learning disabled, was interrogated for four hours and, unsurprisingly, confessed. But there were issues.
At times, Mr. Lewis, who attended a high school for students with learning disabilities, appeared confused on the videotaped confession. He occasionally mumbled through his responses.
The cause of death had been ruled as strangulation, but Mr. Lewis told an investigator on the night he confessed that Ms. Vetrano had drowned in a puddle. He denied sexually assaulting Ms. Vetrano, but the victim’s body was discovered partially clothed with trauma to her vagina and rectum.
Much as Lewis confessed to a murder, his facts didn’t match this murder. But even so, there was Lewis’ DNA. Lewis’ words were one thing, but his DNA told its own story. So why didn’t the jury buy it?
But there remains another nasty problem with DNA, that it doesn’t like to stay in one place.
DNA is itinerant. It wanders. It’s left in one place and ends up all over the place. That it’s found on the corpus is damning, but how it got there may not be as clear as its presence suggests.
[Defense lawyer Robert] Moeller also tried to cast doubt on the DNA evidence, suggesting the crime scene had been contaminated. He said Mr. Lewis might have touched a surface that Ms. Vetrano touched at some point, and a transference of small amounts of DNA might have occurred.
As Lt. Russo said, Lewis had been “loitering” in the park, which is a negative way of saying that he was hanging out there, kind of why parks exist. That his DNA might be found in the park, might end up transferred onto someone jogging through the park, isn’t exactly a surprise, given its itinerant nature. The fact that DNA wanders doesn’t prove how Lewis’ DNA found its way onto the deceased, Vetrano, but it doesn’t prove that it got there because Lewis was the killer, either.
This is why the burden of proof being on the prosecution is such a grave matter. There is a question, a doubt, as to how this gold standard of identifying the killer ended up on the body of the victim, and the jury properly held the prosecution to its burden, that its evidence proved what it claimed it proved, and that it did so beyond a reasonable doubt.
However, there is likely one additional factor that compelled jurors to hold firm and refuse to convict, despite the confluence of DNA and confession.
Seven members wanted to convict him, according to the juror, including all four white members of the panel, a Hispanic woman, an Asian man and a black man.
The five people who had doubts about his guilt were of black, Hispanic and Indian descent.
Some jurors were troubled by how Mr. Lewis, who is black, became a suspect in the first place, the juror said. He was arrested on what amounted to a hunch from a police lieutenant, who, months before the murder, had seen him “acting suspiciously” as he wandered through Howard Beach, a mostly white neighborhood where the murder happened.
The experience of dealing with the police, of being inherently suspicious based on race and neighborhood, of being treated like dirt and tossed for no particular reason, is one that isn’t quickly forgotten or ignored. No matter how many times politicians and police union presidents extol their virtues, it doesn’t overcome the experience of being pushed around and treated like crap. And people know cops lie.
Contrary to some of the wilder assumptions, it’s not that minorities refuse to convict people against whom crimes have been proved. They’re no bigger fans of crime than anyone else, and often the victims of crime. It’s no more fun to be a black crime victim than a white one. But when it comes to persuading jurors who have been on the receiving end of police abuse and deceit, not even a lousy confession and itinerant DNA can lock up an inflammatory but dubious case. As well they shouldn’t.