Levy Prosecution Lacks Forensic Data, Uses Unreliable Witnesses, Defense Says

Ingmar Guandique, 27, is escorted by police in Washington.
Ingmar Guandique, 27, is escorted by police in Washington. (Jacquelyn Martin - AP)
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By Keith L. Alexander
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 24, 2009

Defense attorneys for Ingmar Guandique wasted no time yesterday in challenging his prosecution on charges stemming from the killing of Chandra Levy, using his first court appearance as a venue to warn against a "rush to judgment."

During a hearing in D.C. Superior Court, defense attorney Santha Sonenberg said the case lacks forensic evidence and is built largely on accounts of unreliable witnesses, some of whom were incarcerated with Guandique while he was in prison for attacks on two other women.

Guandique, 27, was brought to Washington this week from a federal prison facility to answer charges in the killing of Levy, 24, a former federal intern who disappeared in May 2001. The tattooed, small-framed defendant, who was wearing an orange jail jumpsuit, said nothing at the hearing other than his name.

Magistrate Judge J. Dennis Doyle ordered that Guandique remain in the D.C. jail pending a follow-up hearing May 27.

At this stage, the defense has not gotten a full look at the case the prosecutors have assembled. The most detailed account is in a police affidavit used to charge Guandique with first-degree murder.

Based on that affidavit, authorities are depending on statements from victims of Guandique and from unidentified witnesses who said he admitted to the crime in letters and conversations that explained how he attacked, sexually assaulted and killed Levy in Rock Creek Park. He said he acted with the help of two accomplices not named in the affidavit.

The affidavit makes no mention of physical evidence such as DNA.

In a statement after the hearing, Sonenberg and co-counsel Maria Hawilo, both of the D.C. Public Defender Service, said the case is based on "made-up claims" about what Guandique has told others.

"We look forward to trying this case before unbiased jurors who will not rush to judgment," the defense attorneys said.

Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier defended Guandique's arrest, saying, "If it were flawed, we wouldn't have brought charges forward."

Authorities obtained the arrest warrant last month. Guandique has been serving a 10-year sentence for attacking the two other women at knifepoint in the park about the time that Levy disappeared. Her body was found a year later.

Levy's disappearance generated international attention because she had been having an affair with then-Rep. Gary A. Condit (D-Calif.), who represented the district that includes her home town of Modesto. From the start, Condit denied harming Levy. Guandique, an illegal immigrant from El Salvador, came under scrutiny months after Levy vanished, but it was not until a new set of detectives got the case that it came together.

Some former prosecutors said the government could have a difficult time winning the case.

Older cases are often the most difficult to prove and without physical evidence, even harder.

In addition, a polygraph examiner, who tested Guandique in February 2002, found he was "not deceptive" when he denied being involved in or causing Levy's disappearance. Four days after that FBI polygraph, according to court records, former assistant U.S. attorney Kristina Ament said at Guandique's assault sentencing that authorities did not believe he was connected to the Levy case.

Former assistant U.S. attorney Steven McCool said the D.C. Court of Appeals has ruled that statements by prosecutors can be admitted as evidence.

Guandique's alleged confessions to witnesses also might be an issue. If, as the defense says, these accounts come from prisoners, the jury might have second thoughts, said former assistant U.S. attorney E. Lawrence Barcella Jr., particularly if their jail time is reduced in return.

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