New details could undermine witness in Chandra Levy case

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 18, 2012 

— Newly obtained information potentially undermines a prosecution witness used to convict an illegal Salvadoran immigrant of killing former intern Chandra Levy, an unusual court hearing revealed Tuesday.

Citing “information that has come to the government’s attention,” D.C. Superior Court Judge Gerald I. Fisher huddled with prosecutors and defense attorneys for nearly two hours Tuesday afternoon before scheduling a follow-up hearing next month. At the prosecutors’ request, Fisher kept nearly all of the Tuesday discussion itself – including the exact reasons for keeping the information secret – sealed up at a lengthy private bench conference.

“The possible disclosure of that information may create safety issues,” Fisher said.

The hearing before a largely empty, third-floor courtroom occurred more than two years after a jury convicted Ingmar Guandique of Levy’s murder.

During 10 days of trial testimony, prosecutors persuaded jurors that Guandique killed Levy in Washington’s Rock Creek Park on May 1, 2001. At the time, the 24-year-old Levy had finished graduate studies and a federal Bureau of Prisons internship and was preparing to return to her family’s home in Modesto, Calif.

Levy’s 2001 disappearance became national tabloid fodder when media and law enforcement investigators determined she had been having an affair with then-San Joaquin Valley, Calif., congressman Gary Condit. In a riveting moment, 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. In the trial’s turning point, jurors later said, former Fresno Bulldogs gang member Armando Morales testified that Guandique had confessed to him while they were prison cellmates.

Neither documents nor public statements available Tuesday clarified the nature of the new information nor the identity of the prosecution witness whose credibility could potentially be undercut. As a general rule, so-called impeachment evidence can be used either to contradict a story told by the witness or to demonstrate the witness is biased.

Defense attorney James Klein, who heads the Public Defenders Service appellate division, declined to talk about the latest legal twist in what has already been a tumultuous case. Prosecutors essentially confined their public comments to a plea that the judge keep secret the discussion over why the new evidence should stay secret.

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

Fisher lost a previous fight over secrecy, when the D.C. Court of Appeals overruled his decision to keep juror questionnaires secret.

The post-trial hearing Tuesday afternoon was the latest to be held since a jury convicted Guandique in November 2010.

The case on appeal. After the trial, defense attorney Santha Sonenberg complained about alleged juror misbehavior as well about statements made by Assistant U.S. Attorney Amanda Haines during the prosecutor’s closing argument. Citing newspaper accounts, Sonenberg said some jurors violated the judge’s admonitions by sharing notes with a fellow juror. Sonenberg also asserted Haines went too far in seeking the jury’s sympathy when the prosecutor conjured up what Levy’s final moments of life might have been like.

On Nov. 30, at the request of Guandique’s publicly funded appellate attorneys, the D.C. Court of Appeals extended until Feb. 26, 2013, the deadline for Guandique’s initial appeals brief. The extension was the fifth time that the defense attorneys have sought more time.

“Counsel has been assigned a number of cases that have been pending appeal for a longer time,” defense attorneys noted in one filing, adding in another that “counsel’s workload” is heavy.

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