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Ingmar Guandique convicted of first-degree murder of former intern Chandra Levy

By Keith L. Alexander and Henri E. Cauvin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, November 23, 2010; 12:06 AM

Prosecutors overcame a lack of any scientific evidence to secure a conviction Monday of Ingmar Guandique in the killing of former federal intern Chandra Levy.

Guandique, 29, will be sentenced in February on two counts of first-degree felony murder, one related to her kidnapping and one related to attempted robbery. He could face up to life in prison without parole.

The Levy case was challenging from the start. There was no forensic evidence linking Guandique to the crime scene in Rock Creek Park, no murder weapon, no eyewitness and no definitive ruling from the medical examiner on what killed Levy. Numerous mistakes by police and forensic scientists further hampered the investigation.

But prosecutors offered a compelling theory of how Levy died nine years ago. They presented believable testimony from a former cellmate of Guandique's who said Guandique confessed to the attack and the gripping stories of two women who were attacked by Guandique in Rock Creek Park about the same time as Levy went missing in 2001.

Jurors said that was enough to reach a guilty verdict.

"I don't know that it was particularly difficult," said juror Linda Norton, an interior designer.

When asked about the lack of DNA and other science in the case, Norton said: "Well . . . there was a lot of evidence. . . .You know how much evidence there was, all kinds of evidence, and we were in a very small room with all of that evidence every day and we went through it in a very deliberate manner." She said the length of the deliberation was a direct result of the volume of that evidence.

The jury of nine women and three men reached its verdict after 31/2 days of deliberations.

Juror Sharae Bacon said the cellmate's testimony convinced her that Guandique killed Levy. "There were no holes in his testimony," she said.

Levy's mother, Susan Levy, let out a sigh and looked at Guandique as the verdict was read and the jurors were polled. Two of the jurors seemed to wipe away tears.

Guandique, 29, wearing a blue turtleneck and a gray sweater vest, listened through headphones that translated the verdict into Spanish. He stared straight ahead and had no visible reaction.

But as he was led from the courtroom, he ripped off the headphones and threw them onto the defense table.

His attorneys, Santha Sonenberg and Maria Hawilo from the District's public defender's service, declined to comment. But it is likely they will appeal.

After the verdict was announced, Susan Levy and the lead prosecutor locked in a warm embrace outside the courtroom. "Thank you," Susan Levy said to Assistant U.S. Attorney Amanda Haines. ". . . That was a miracle."

"Miracles happen," Haines replied.

The guilty verdict was a major victory for the U.S. attorney's office in the District.

Levy, 24, disappeared May 1, 2001, and the case immediately generated worldwide interest. Levy was having an affair at the time with Gary A. Condit, the married congressman from her California home town, who was 30 years her senior, and Condit was the first suspect in Levy's disappearance. Levy was in Washington after having completed an internship as part of her master's degree studies at the University of Southern California.

More than a month after her disappearance, police searched Rock Creek Park for any signs of Levy, but did not find anything. A year later, a man walking his dog in the park found Levy's skull.

Police located more of her remains and some of her belongings, including her sports bra, black tights and T-shirt. But by then, valuable DNA evidence had long since eroded. What little DNA they found on the items belonged to an unknown person and not to Guandique - points made by the defense through the trial.

Without any forensic evidence, prosecutors based their case on two primary pillars. First, they argued, that Guandique preyed on women in Rock Creek Park and that the attack on Levy was part of a pattern. Guandique was convicted in 2002 of attacking two female joggers in the park about the same time Levy disappeared, and those joggers testified at the trial.

The second pillar was the testimony of one of Guandique's former cellmates, who was housed with Guandique when he was serving time for the jogger attacks. The inmate told jurors that Guandique admitted to him in 2006 that he killed Levy.

That testimony was the only evidence during more than three weeks of trial that directly linked Guandique to Levy's slaying.

Armando Morales, a convicted drug dealer and gang member who was housed with Guandique in a Kentucky prison in 2006, gave compelling details of what Guandique told him.

Guandique said he was high on drugs and crouching behind bushes in Rock Creek Park when he saw Levy walking alone and wearing a waist pouch, Morales said. Guandique needed money and he jumped Levy.

Morales, a five-time convicted felon, captivated the courtroom with his testimony. Although the account was secondhand, it was the first telling of Levy's final moments.

Guandique confided in Morales because he was afraid he was about to be transferred to another prison and feared he would be targeted by inmates because he had been tagged a rapist, Morales testified.

Morales, 49, told Guandique not to worry if he had done nothing wrong.

According to Morales, Guandique said: "You don't understand. . . . Homeboy, I killed the [expletive], but I didn't rape her."

Guandique told Morales that he grabbed Levy from behind and dragged her off the trail. She tried to fight, but by the time Guandique got her into the bushes, she had stopped struggling. He said he thought she was unconscious, not dead, Morales testified.

Guandique took the pouch and ran into the woods, Morales said.

"He said he never meant to kill her," Morales testified.

Bacon, the juror, said Morales was the key to the verdict for her and others on the panel.

"They were gang brothers. Guandique confided in him," she said.

Bacon said the jurors focused on Morales's discussion of the pouch. It never was recovered and other witnesses recounted how Levy wore the fanny pack around her waist when she exercised.

Guandique, an illegal immigrant from El Salvador, also had scratches on his face at the time Levy disappeared and gave varying accounts to friends about how he got them, according to testimony.

Prosecutors argued that the scratches were a result of a struggle that he had with Levy in the park.

Defense attorneys argued that there was no forensic evidence tying Guandique to the crime scene, because Guandique didn't commit the crime. He wasn't there, they argued. They theorized that Levy wasn't killed in the park but that her body was dumped there.

They brought in another cellmate of Guandique's, who testified that Guandique never mentioned Levy's name.

The conviction further solidifies Haines place as a top prosecutor in the U.S. attorney's office. Haines took the case when others thought there was very little evidence to take the case to trial. Also, Haines oversaw three major cold cases in the past two years in which she secured convictions.

For months, when Levy was considered only a missing person, police viewed Condit as the prime suspect and failed to follow other leads. For eight years, the case sat as detectives and prosecutors searched for clues. Then last year, prosecutors believed they had enough evidence and charged Guandique with Levy's murder.

Gladys Weatherspoon, who represented Guandique when he was charged in the 2001 assaults of Halle Shilling and Christy Wiegand, said the verdict was predictable but troubling.

The jurors, Weatherspoon said, had a great weight on them. "I just think they were going to convict anyway," she said. "They felt bad for that woman, the mom. She's sitting in there every day."

Weatherspoon, who was at the public defender service when she represented Guandique almost a decade ago, is now in private practice. She said the suggestion by the prosecution that Levy was the victim of a sexual predator who tied her up was wholly inconsistent with Guandique's modus operandi on the other two women.

"If it happened, it was an accident," she said, noting that the government's own witness had testified that Guandique said it was months before he even learned that Levy had died.

alexanderk@washpost.com cauvinh@washpost.com

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