What The Chandra Levy Retrial Teaches Us About Defendants' Rights

What's interesting about this decision, however, isn't just the re-opening of one of the most widely covered criminal cases of the past 50 years--it's the opportunity to cast light on how the prosecution's conduct deprived Mr. Guandique of his constitutional rights.
05/26/2016 12:14 pm ET Updated May 27, 2017

In late 2015, a D.C. Superior Court trial judge granted a new trial to Ingmar Guandique, the man who was convicted of murdering Chandra Levy, a congressional intern, in 2001.

What's interesting about this decision, however, isn't just the re-opening of one of the most widely covered criminal cases of the past 50 years--it's the opportunity to cast light on how the prosecution's conduct deprived Mr. Guandique of his constitutional rights.

Contrary to what we see on Law and Order, CSI, and any number of popular crime shows, "justice" doesn't simply mean putting someone in jail. In these shows, time and time again we see how "heroic" prosecutors rationalize bending the rules--our Constitutional rights--in order to put the "right bad guy" behind bars.

The facts behind Ingmar Guandique's trial provide us a disturbing look at just how ugly things can get when prosecutors who are under pressure to produce a conviction in a high profile case trample a defendant's rights in order to get it.

Background

There was no physical evidence tying Mr. Guandique to Chandra Levy's murder--no CSI-style fibers, fingerprints or DNA. No eyewitnesses claimed they'd seen Mr. Guandique attack Ms. Levy, and prosecutors didn't indict Guandique with the murder of Levy, who disappeared in 2001, until 2009.

The core of the case against Mr. Guandique was built upon the testimony of Armando Morales, a prison inmate who alleged that Guandique confessed to the murder.

Morales claimed that Mr. Guandique described the murder in detail. The prosecution then used these details to introduce testimony about earlier attacks that Mr. Guandique perpetrated on two women in a park. Because of the similarity of the details of Mr. Guandique's "confession" and the earlier attacks, the prosecution was allowed to introduce the evidence of the prior crimes as evidence of a modus operandi.

Modus Operandi and "Other Crimes" Evidence

Prosecutors cannot use evidence that someone committed a past crime to demonstrate that they are more likely to have committed the crime for which they're presently on trial.

There is good reason for this restriction. Courts and lawmakers have found that such "propensity" evidence is far too prejudicial against defendants. It tends to convince juries of a defendant's guilt much more than it should--so much so, in fact, that such "propensity" evidence is inadmissible.

However, prosecutors can introduce this kind of evidence for purposes other than showing one's propensity to commit the crime. It can be used to demonstrate someone's motive, intent, the absence of mistake, identity, or a common scheme or plan (modus operandi). This "other crimes" evidence can be very persuasive to jurors.

In the Levy case, Morales' testimony about Guandique's purported "confession" opened the door for the prosecutors to present evidence about Morales' past crimes via the modus operandi exception. As a result, not only was Morales' testimony the only connection tying Mr. Guandique to Chandra Levy's murder, it was also the bedrock for the rest of the prosecution's case.

Napue and Brady Violations

During the Levy case, prosecutors did two things that they were not supposed to do under any circumstances:

  1. In order to build Morales' credibility, prosecutors allowed him to testify about numerous facts they either knew or should have known were false or misleading to the jury;
  • They hid or otherwise failed to turn over to the defense information that would have revealed these falsehoods and strengthened Guandique's defense.
  • By law, the government is not allowed to do this. The former is called a Napue violation, and the latter is referred to as a Brady violation, and both of these violations deprive a defendant of the constitutional rights granted to all of us.

    The Napue Violation

    The defense knew that prosecutors would attempt to have cooperating witnesses testify at trial. Before trial Mr. Guandique's lawyers requested that the prosecution disclose the names of these witnesses so that the defense could investigate their backgrounds.

    The prosecution, which became aware of Morales' information 20 months before trial, fought tooth and nail to oppose this request, and the judge required the prosecution to disclose the names only two weeks before trial.

    All the prosecution disclosed before trial was Morales' name and date of birth, and three of his criminal convictions, and prosecutors stated unequivocally that he had "received no benefit in exchange for this testimony."

    As a result of the government's failure to disclose this information, the defense learned about Morales largely alongside the jury. This left the defense no time or opportunity to fully investigate the veracity of Morales' claims.

    After a full investigation was conducted by the defense, much of it after the trial, it became clear that Morales had repeatedly lied about facts in order to embellish his trustworthiness in the eyes of the jurors.

    The prosecutors were aware that many of Morales' statements were false. Regarding others, there was information contradicting Morales' testimony easily available in records kept by the FBI and the Bureau of Prisons (BOP). To make matters worse, the FBI and the BOP were both intimately involved in this case.

    Under the Napue doctrine, the government cannot allow a witness to testify falsely when the prosecution knows or should know the testimony is false. In Mr. Guandique's case, it seems this is exactly what prosecutors did.

    The Brady Violation

    Whereas the government's willingness to allow Morales to lie constituted a Napue violation, its failure to disclose information about Morales and the truth of his situation constituted a violation of Brady v. Maryland, a Supreme Court decision which dictates that prosecutors must turn over to the defense information that tends to show that a defendant didn't commit the crime. This includes information that discredits government witnesses.

    After the trial, the defense filed a comprehensive motion detailing all the key pieces of information withheld by the government. Furthermore, the defense laid out, in detail, how the government capitalized on the information that was withheld. The defense argued that, as a result of these blatant constitutional violations, Guandique deserved a new trial.

    As it became clear that the prosecutors on the case would have to testify under oath at a hearing to determine what information they knew about Morales, when they knew it, why they hadn't disclosed it pretrial, and why they'd allowed Morales to testify falsely, the government withdrew its opposition to a new trial.

    As a result, the government avoided a finding of Brady and Napue violations and the potential scrutiny that would have accompanied such rulings.

    What Mr. Guandique's Trial & Retrial Shows Us

    The pressure on prosecutors to secure convictions in high profile cases like that of Chandra Levy or Ted Stevens leads to an "ends justifies the means" approach that is extremely dangerous. Systemic checks on prosecutors are the key to preventing this type of distortion of the judicial process.

    Allowing defense attorneys expanded access to discovery in criminal cases, or "open file" discovery, including the names of government witnesses at early stages of the proceedings, would go a long way toward preventing these transgressions.

    The District of Columbia Court of Appeals recently broadened the Rule 3.8 of the District of Columbia Rules of Professional Conduct to expand a prosecutor's disclosure obligation under Brady v. Maryland. Expanded use of the bar disciplinary process to punish prosecutors who violate defendants' rights might begin to deter this type of conduct.