A D.C. judge on Thursday granted a new trial to the man convicted of killing federal intern Chandra Levy in 2001, and prosecutors face steep challenges after acceding to the defense request to retry the case, attorneys and legal experts said.
D.C. Superior Court Judge Gerald I. Fisher — who presided over the 2010 trial that resulted in Ingmar Guandique’s being sentenced to 60 years in prison — set aside the verdict and agreed to bring the case before a new judge and jury.
“Unless there is something else to be said, I would grant the motion for a new trial,” Fisher said in a brief hearing attended by Guandique, 34, who was dressed in an orange prison jumpsuit.
Levy was a 24-year-old intern with the Federal Bureau of Prisons when she disappeared May 1, 2001, triggering a media sensation because police investigators at first suspected and then cleared Gary A. Condit, a married California congressman who was 30 years her senior and with whom Levy was having an affair. Levy’s remains were found a year later in Rock Creek Park, where it is believed she had been jogging.
Since 2013, Guandique’s D.C. Public Defender Service attorneys have argued that his conviction “was based on a lie” spun by a former cellmate, Armando Morales, who testified that Guandique confessed to killing Levy but withheld his own previous cooperation with law enforcement as a prison informant.
Citing the “interests of justice,” prosecutors on May 22 abruptly dropped their adamant opposition to defense requests for a retrial shortly before a hearing at which the government was to explain its handling of Morales.
The government “continues to believe the verdict was correct,” the prosecution said, but the “passage of time and the unique circumstances of this case” made preparing their opposition to the defense motion more difficult.
But now, they face a retrial with the credibility of a key witness damaged, the defendant seeking pretrial release and more legal skirmishing over what new jurors should be told about the first trial.
No eyewitness, forensic evidence or medical cause of death linked Guandique to Levy’s death. Instead, prosecutors asked female joggers to testify about two previous attacks at knifepoint in Rock Creek Park for which Guandique pleaded guilty in 2002 and was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
And they relied on Morales, who stated that Guandique had told him that he was high on drugs, saw Levy walking alone with a waist pouch and attacked her for cash.
Jon Anderson, one of Guandique’s public defenders, said Thursday that the defense would seek sanctions against the prosecution, which it believed knew or should have known that Morales had cooperated with law enforcement in past cases even though he denied on the witness stand ever doing so.
Prosecutors have said that neither detectives nor anyone in the U.S. attorney’s office for the District knew of such interactions involving Morales.
At a new trial, prosecutors could again call Morales to the stand. They have said in court papers that no new information revealed about him “casts doubt on the defendant’s guilt of the murder of Chandra Levy.”
But if Morales does testify, the prosecution could face additional hurdles, experts said. Former prosecutors and defense attorneys said they expected the defense might, at the least, seek an instruction to jurors in any new trial stating that Morales had previously perjured himself. They agreed to assess the case on the condition of anonymity because of their work before Superior Court judges and with the offices of the U.S. attorney and public defender.
Guandique’s defense team might also request informing potential jurors that prosecutors had improperly withheld exculpatory evidence because they knew their case was weak.
All such arguments would trigger additional litigation.
“You put on the stand whoever you want, and whether they're believable, that’s the whole purpose of cross-examination, whether this guy is credible,” one former federal prosecutor in the District said. “The question is whether the government wants to put him on and go through that.”
Prosecutors also may seek to bolster their case through witnesses the initial jury did not hear. In the 2010 trial, prosecutors indicated that they might call at least two other inmates, before dropping those plans and cutting the trial short.
Anderson said Guandique, after being held five years in the Levy case, would seek to be released on bond pending his second trial, arguing that the government’s other evidence is weak.
“It has been demonstrated that his testimony was false,” Anderson argued of Morales. “Without Morales . . . we don’t believe the government can prevail at trial.”
David Gorman, deputy chief of the homicide section of the U.S. attorney’s office, said, “We disagree with almost everything Mr. Anderson has put forward, but we are not prepared to respond point by point at this time.”
D.C. Superior Court Judge Robert E. Morin set a hearing June 12 to schedule a trial later this year or in 2016. If next year, the trial could be assigned to another judge.