Chanel Lewis, 22, was found guilty this month after a second trial. His first trial ended in a hung jury.
Justice Michael B. Aloise told Lewis that if he ever planned to atone for his crime, “You’re going to do it inside a cage.”
Before he was sentenced, Lewis listened to a series of wrenching statements from Vetrano’s father, mother and two siblings. When his turn to speak came, he said: “I’m innocent. I’m sorry for the family’s loss, but I didn’t do this.”
Lewis had confessed to beating Vetrano, and traces of his DNA were discovered on her neck and cellphone when her body was found on an overgrown path in Spring Creek Park in Howard Beach. His lawyers argued that the confession had been coerced and that the DNA evidence was unreliable.
The killing of Vetrano, 30, was one of the highest-profile cases in the city in recent years, and it set in motion a huge police manhunt.
The prosecution of Lewis also prompted a fierce debate on social media and in the courtroom, as some observers said the confession and DNA evidence were proof enough of his guilt, while others argued that prosecutors had the wrong person.
The two trials also dredged up questions about coerced confessions, racial profiling and the fallibility of police — issues that have hung over New York City’s criminal justice system for decades. During the investigation, police sought DNA samples from 380 black men before they found a match in Lewis.
Lewis’ lawyers intend to appeal, they said. His supporters said they plan to hold protests in Howard Beach, where they predicted Vetrano’s true killer would be found.
Two of Lewis’ supporters, Kevin McCall and Chris Banks — who were arrested outside the Queens courthouse for deliberately blocking traffic — portrayed the conviction and sentence as another injustice against a wrongfully accused black man.
They shouted “Justice for Chanel!” in the courtroom as spectators filed out at the end of the sentencing, and afterward, McCall said Lewis had been “lynched” in a sentence imposed by a “racist” judge.
When the case’s lead prosecutor, Brad Leventhal, walked out of the courthouse, Lewis’ supporters jeered and chanted, “Shame on you.”
“I know that my son is innocent,” Lewis’ mother, Veta Lewis, said on the courthouse steps.
She also said, without evidence, that investigators “planted Chanel’s DNA on that girl.”
In their statements to the judge, Vetrano’s father, mother and two siblings remembered Karina Vetrano as a “light” in their lives and spoke of the terror she must have felt in her last moments alive. They asked Aloise to impose the maximum sentence, and they savaged Chanel Lewis and his defense team.
“You are unremarkable, insignificant,” Vetrano’s older sister, Tana Vetrano, told Lewis. “May you live a long life in darkness and in fear.”
Vetrano’s father, Philip Vetrano, said his own life effectively ended with the death of his daughter, whose body he discovered in tall weeds near a jogging trail Aug. 2, 2016. He said that he, his wife and children “walk the Earth as zombies, just waiting to die so we can be with Karina again.”
“Only my faith in God and belief in heaven keeps me from killing myself,” Philip Vetrano said.
Karina Vetrano’s mother said Lewis was a clever and remorseless criminal, not the emotionally challenged young man portrayed by his defense team.
“The vacant expression you show is mostly a reflection of your empty soul,” she said.
Aloise, echoing the religious tone of some of the Vetrano family’s remarks, said he believed that Vetrano now sat beside God and urged Lewis to “put into practice” the research into redemption and second chances that police found on his cellphone’s search history.
He rejected the defense team’s appeal for a lighter sentence in light of Lewis’ mental and emotional difficulties.
After Tuesday’s sentencing, the Legal Aid Society said in a statement announcing an appeal that while Vetrano’s death was tragic, “every aspect of this case — from the police investigation to jury deliberations — was propelled by a desire to convict at all costs.”
One of Lewis’ defense lawyers, Julia Burke, said she wasn’t surprised by the Vetrano family’s criticism. “This case was emotionally charged,” Burke said. “I agree with the judge that this was a loss for both families.”
At his second trial this month, a different jury took only five hours of deliberation to find Lewis guilty of first-degree murder, two second-degree murder counts and first-degree sexual abuse.
But one juror, Christopher Gooley, afterward accused others on the panel of misconduct in their rush to convict Lewis, leading to an extraordinary post-trial hearing Monday in which jurors themselves took the stand and defense lawyers asked for a retrial. Aloise denied the request.
The case has fanned old tensions in a part of the city that was once the scene of racial violence. It also linked two families living a few miles away from one another but worlds apart.
Lewis, a son of Jamaican immigrants, graduated from a high school for students with learning disabilities, and lived in East New York with his mother, a nursing home aide. In court Tuesday, Burke, the defense lawyer, said Lewis’ father, a retired schoolteacher, was now living in a nursing home and suffering from dementia.
Vetrano, whose father is a retired firefighter, worked as a speech pathologist for autistic children, and lived with her parents in Howard Beach, a predominantly white neighborhood that is home to many city police and fire department employees.
During closing arguments, both mothers could be seen with articles of religious faith, Vetrano’s mother holding a small cross while Veta Lewis sat on the opposite side quietly reading a Bible. Karina Vetrano’s family said Lewis would face God’s vengeance; his supporters also cited their faith in divine intervention.
“God is going to vindicate my son,” Veta Lewis said.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.