Key witness in Levy murder case was a too-eager snitch, say defense attorneys

McClatchy Washington BureauJuly 29, 2013 

— A former Fresno, Calif., gang-banger whose testimony helped convict the man accused of killing Chandra Levy had previously offered to help authorities solve three other homicides, a court hearing revealed Monday.

In yet another twist to the long-running Levy mystery, defense attorneys revealed that key witness Armando Morales was a would-be prison snitch long before he testified in the 2010 trial against his former cellmate, Ingmar Guandique. Morales suggested in court that he’d not previously assisted law enforcement, when newly revealed evidence suggests he had.

Guandique’s jury, though, never knew of that prior track record when Morales testified that Guandique had confessed to him.

“We have found all sorts of instances that contradict his testimony,” defense attorney Jonathan W. Anderson said, adding that “there’s more than this one lie.”

Prosecutors say Guandique stalked and killed Levy in Washington’s Rock Creek Park on May 1, 2001. Her skeletal remains were found in 2002. At the time of her disappearance, she was preparing to return to her Modesto, Calif., home. Her disappearance drew national notoriety because of revelations that she had been having an affair with her hometown congressman, then-Rep. Gary Condit.

Morales shared a cell with Guandique for about six weeks in 2006 while they were incarcerated at U.S. Penitentiary Big Sandy in Kentucky. In time, Morales said, they confided in one another.

“He said, ‘Homeboy, I killed that bitch, but I didn’t rape her,’” Morales testified at Guandique’s trial, adding that “he told me that he didn’t even know that he had killed her.”

Guandique is now serving a 60-year sentence. He sat silent and shackled Monday, flanked by U.S. marshals, as attorneys wrangled.

Now, defense attorneys are zeroing in on Morales’ claim during Guandique’s trial that he “didn’t know how” to approach law enforcement with information, as well as his statement that he had never testified against other defendants in other cases. Late last year, Washington-based prosecutors say, they learned for the first time that there was more to Morales’s story.

Subsequent investigation, fleshed out in greater detail during a two-hour hearing Monday, has disclosed that Morales spoke to law enforcement officers in the late 1990s while incarcerated at the U.S. Penitentiary Atlanta. It is not yet clear who initiated the conversations, but revelations of their existence could undercut Morales’ credibility.

“We know he debriefed extensively with the Fresno County Sheriff’s Department,” defense attorney James Klein said.

A founding member of the Fresno Bulldogs street gang, Morales had served prison time for various other crimes when he was prosecuted in 1996 on drugs and weapons charges after an undercover investigation by federal agents and the Fresno County Sheriff’s Department. Morales was initially charged with conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine and crack cocaine, as well as being a felon in possession of firearms.

He eventually pleaded guilty to a series of felonies. He is scheduled to be released in 2016.

Some time after his 1996 conviction, Fresno County deputies subsequently spoke by phone several times with Morales and met with him for one day at the high-security prison in Atlanta. Further details about the homicides for which Morales allegedly offered to provide information were not disclosed Monday, nor was it clear what the Bureau of Prisons did with Morales’ alleged offer to provide information about drugs and weapons at the prison.

In a previously sealed transcript of a Jan. 4, 2013, hearing, released late Monday, Anderson added that Morales in 1996 was “very upset because according to him, he gave the whole history of the Fresno Bulldogs to some member of the Fresno sheriff’s department, who built his career on that.”

Defense attorneys contend that prosecutors knew, or should have known, about Morales’ past record as a would-be informer, and they say that prosecutors failed to meet their legal obligation to share this information. More fundamentally, the defense attorneys say jurors would have had reason to discount Morales’ credibility had they known more about his record.

“We have a core issue before us,” D.C. Superior Court Judge Gerald Fisher said, “of whether what was presented at trial was untrue.”

After placing numerous proceedings and legal filings under a protective order, citing potential safety considerations, Fisher on Monday ordered the immediate release of redacted transcripts and pleadings.

Email: mdoyle@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @MichaelDoyle10

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