Defense readies witnesses in trial of Levy murder suspect

11/12/2010 12:00 AM

11/13/2010 12:16 AM

WASHINGTON — Prosecutors presented many witnesses in their case against the man accused of killing former Modesto resident Chandra Levy. Only a few of them really matter.

Some 40 witnesses of widely varying strengths took the stand during the nine days that prosecutors laid out their evidence. By noon Wednesday, when prosecutors abruptly rested, the case seemed to boil down to three.

Two resolute women spoke about being attacked in 2001 by accused killer Ingmar Guandique in Washington’s Rock Creek Park, relatively near where Levy’s remains were found in May 2002. A tattooed felon connected the dots, saying Guandique confessed to attacking Levy in the park.

"He said, 'I killed that b----, but I didn't rape her,'” former Fresno Bulldogs gang member Armando Morales testified.

The 49-year-old Morales sounded sincere. He’s also got a thuggish past, having spent much of his adult life behind bars. His credibility, in jurors’ minds, will probably determine the fate of the case against Guandique.

It’s a circumstantial case that can seem compelling in one light, tenuous in another.

Prosecutors performed ably with the evidence they had. Still, two competing thoughts came to mind once prosecutors rested: Guandique may seem guilty, but reasonable doubts can persist. An acquittal or hung jury would not be surprising.

Guandique’s defense attorneys will present several witnesses when trial resumes Monday.

Prosecutors say Guandique killed the 24-year-old Levy in Washington’s Rock Creek Park on May 1, 2001. They have suggested she was strangled, but have not presented evidence about the precise cause of death

Initially, assistant U.S. attorneys Amanda Haines and Fernando Campoamor-Sanchez theorized the murder occurred during an attempted sexual assault. In the face of apparent evidentiary shortcomings, they dropped the sexual assault allegations on Wednesday.

Some potential witnesses seem notable by their absence. The Washington, D.C. detectives who reopened the Levy investigation in 2007 were not called, nor were the FBI special agents who were part of the original investigation. Prosecutors had previously cited other potential witnesses, including at least one additional inmate, who allegedly heard Guandique confess. None of these were called. No explanation was given, though prosecutors presumably had their tactical reasons. One reason could be fear that the other witnesses wouldn't hold up as well as Morales.

At least seven of the prosecution witnesses were summoned to speak of DNA or fingerprint evidence, though none of it linked Guandique to Levy. Instead, the forensics witnesses delivered technical disquisitions that explained, for instance, the absence of compelling DNA evidence for a crime in which the victim's body lay outside for more than a year.

"Decomposition is a harsh process for DNA," FBI forensics examiner Alan Giusti noted at one point.

At the time of her death, Levy had finished graduate studies and a federal Bureau of Prisons internship and was apparently preparing to return to California. She had also been sexually involved with then-congressman Gary Condit, the trial has made clear in graphically frank detail.

Semen stains found in Levy’s underwear matched Condit’s DNA, Giusti told jurors. This didn't help solve the case, because the tested underwear was taken from Levy's apartment in 2001 and not from the 2002 crime scene. It did, however, put Condit's name once more in front of jurors. That can't help prosecutors, for whom Condit is a distraction.

Guandique’s aggressive defense attorneys, Santha Sonenberg and Maria Hawilo, have invoked Condit’s name throughout the trial that began Oct. 25. Without explicitly saying so, they seem to suggest there's suspicious about him.

The prosecutors summoned Condit, who represented portions of California’s San Joaquin Valley in the House of Representatives from 1989 through 2002. He refused to admit to the sexual affair that is now common knowledge. He also denied killing Levy.

"We never had a fight," Condit said of the woman who was three decades his junior. "We never had any cross words."

The four men and 12 women who make up the 16-member jury panel have confronted a sometimes disjointed chronology, which has jumped from events in 2001 to lab tests in 2008 and back again to events from 2002.

Haines and Campoamor-Sanchez must now tie these disparate threads together, in the closing argument expected to take place Tuesday or Wednesday. Their job, put simply, is to make the best of an imperfect case.

"There are no eyewitnesses," Haines told jurors in her Oct. 25 opening statement. "The harsh truth is, that Ms Levy died alone. There was nobody there to comfort her."

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