Huffpost Politics

Chandra Levy Murder Trial Begins

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WASHINGTON — If one person is associated with the mysterious slaying of Washington intern Chandra Levy, it isn't the man who will soon be tried on charges he murdered her. It's former California congressman Gary Condit, whose political career imploded after he was romantically linked to the woman and became the No. 1 suspect.

Ingmar Guandique, an illegal immigrant from El Salvador, goes on trial Monday for Levy's 2001 killing. However, he's not even a blip on the national consciousness of the case, which dominated news coverage until the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks rendered it an afterthought.

While police no longer believe Condit had anything to do with Levy's death, his presence will continue to hang over the trial. Condit's spokesman, Bert Fields, said Condit expects to be called as a witness at Guandique's trial, though he has not been subpoenaed.

Fields said Condit will cooperate fully with authorities. But the ex-congressman, who is writing a book about his experience, will not comment on the trial until it ends.

Bill Miller, a spokesman for the prosecutors' office, declined comment on the case and whether Condit will be called as a witness, citing a gag order issued earlier this month.

Defense attorneys are also subject to the gag order. But when Guandique was charged in 2009 with Levy's murder, they criticized what they saw as a botched investigation. Guandique escaped scrutiny in large part because of the frenzy around Condit. The former congressman never admitted an affair but said he was friends with Levy, though the intern had told family members the two had a romantic relationship.

"This flawed investigation, characterized by the many mistakes and missteps of the Metropolitan Police Department and every federal agency that has attempted to solve this case, will not end with the simple issuance of an arrest warrant against Mr. Guandique," said the attorneys, Santha Sonenberg and Maria Hawilo.

At a pretrial hearing Thursday, Sonenberg said police were so desperate to get a confession from Guandique to bolster their case that in 2004 and 2005, police tried to establish a phony penpal relationship with Guandique while he was in prison serving a 10-year sentence, using the pseudonym "Maria Lopez." The ruse did not work.

"It goes to the sort of antics, the sort of shenanigans, the lengths to which they've gone to prosecute Mr. Guandique," Sonenberg said.

Then-U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Taylor has acknowledged the case lacked DNA or physical evidence linking Guandique to Levy. And Guandique never confessed to police – in fact, he passed a lie-detector test denying involvement in Levy's disappearance, though prosecutors now question the validity of that test.

But Taylor cited significant circumstantial evidence, including numerous confessions that Guandique purportedly made to other inmates. And Levy's body was found in a wooded section of the city's Rock Creek Park, where Guandique was convicted of assaulting two other young women in 2001.

At a pretrial hearing last month, Assistant U.S. Attorney Amanda Haines said Guandique has a "signature confession style." She said he has discussed killing Levy with many people, giving each person starkly different details.

Whether jurors believe those confessions will be key. The defense wants to present expert testimony from a university professor on the pitfalls of accounts from jailhouse snitches. However, prosecutors say jurors should be allowed to judge the credibility of witnesses for themselves. Superior Court Judge Gerald I. Fisher has indicated he will not allow the vast majority of the professor's proposed testimony.

As for Condit, exactly what role he will play in the trial is unclear. Defense attorneys could be tempted to remind jurors that police were suspicious of Condit for so long, said attorney George Jackson, a Chicago-based lawyer with the Polsinelli Shughart law firm and a former federal prosecutor.

Jackson said the defense will have to tread lightly because jurors will be put off if they sense attorneys are trying to make an innocent man into a scapegoat. And the government will surely be ready to counter suggestions that Condit was involved. But because Condit is so closely linked to the case in the public's eye, the defense has some leeway to approach the issue with subtlety.

"If it's feasible to suggest that this guy may have been involved, you put it out there" to help create reasonable doubt in a jury's mind, Jackson said. "But it's a dangerous thing to do because you don't know if there will be a backlash."

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