New twist in Chandra Levy murder case

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 4, 2013 

— Another kink and some new secrets have entered the Chandra Levy murder mystery more than 11 years after the former Modesto, Calif. resident disappeared.

On Friday, prosecutors and defense attorneys wrangled in a secret session for nearly two hours following discovery of information that could undermine a prosecution witness. At present, though, it’s impossible to know whether this latest twist could seriously call into question the outcome of a trial that ended with a conviction in November 2010.

Following 10 days of trial testimony, D.C. jurors concluded that illegal Salvadoran immigrant Ingmar Guandique killed Levy in Washington’s Rock Creek Park on May 1, 2001.

The nature of the so-called impeachment information and the identity of the witness potentially implicated have been locked up by the trial judge, who had conducted a similar hearing last month at the bench so that it could not be overheard.

“I have concluded that both the last court proceeding and today’s proceeding will remain under seal,” D.C. Superior Court Judge Gerald I. Fisher stated following the closed-door hearing Friday afternoon, though he added that “they may be unsealed at some point in the future.”

Fisher asked a McClatchy reporter to leave the courtroom prior to the start of the hearing Friday, over the reporter’s stated objections. Fisher also ejected from the hearing Pauline Mandel, an attorney for Maryland Crime Victims Resource Center who has been representing Chandra Levy’s mother, Susan.

Fisher did not elaborate Friday on his reasons for keeping the entire hearing closed, but his decision followed a request from the U.S. Attorney’s office. Prosecutors, in brief public remarks last month, asserted that public disclosure of the witness information and the reasons for keeping it secret posed a potential safety risk.

“I fear that as we continue to discuss these matters, things will bleed out,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Margaret J. Chriss warned the judge last month.

Defense attorneys for Guandique, who are now preparing a long-delayed appeal of his conviction, sought unsuccessfully to keep the hearings open.

“We think all, or perhaps most, of these proceedings can take place in public,” defense attorney Jonathan Anderson told Fisher on Friday.

Anderson added that prosecutors had only presented “vague” information concerning the alleged safety risk posed by a public hearing.

Taken together, the bench session last month and the closed-door session Friday lasted roughly four hours. They have not been the first time secrecy has arisen, and been questioned, in the long-running Levy case.

After Fisher sought to keep juror questionnaires secret, the D.C. Court of Appeals sided with the Washington Post in a decision overturning Fisher’s secrecy order.

“Not only does public access enhance just results, it also promotes the appearance of fairness so essential to public confidence in the system,” the appellate court stated in its’ 2012 decision overturning Fisher.

At the time of her disappearance on May 1, 2001, the 24-year-old Levy had finished a University of Southern California graduate program and a federal Bureau of Prisons internship. She was preparing to return to her family’s home in Modesto, where her parents still live. Levy’s 2001 disappearance drew national attention when investigators learned she had been having an affair with then-San Joaquin Valley, Calif., congressman Gary Condit. Condit testified at Guandique’s trial; he denied having anything to do with Levy’s death and he refused to answer questions about their relationship.

The trial’s key witness was former Fresno Bulldogs gang member Armando Morales, who testified that Guandique had confessed to him while they were prison cellmates. Morales is due to be released from federal prison in 2016, though his name no longer appears on the federal Bureau of Prisons inmate locator website. This could be an indication he is in protective custody.

The case is on appeal, with Guandique’s defense attorneys complaining about statements made by the lead prosecutor as well alleged sharing of notes by jurors. The formal appellate brief, spelling out Guandique’s arguments in depth, is now due next month

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