WASHINGTON — Prosecutors started slow but ended strong during a paradoxical week in the trial of the man accused of killing Chandra Levy, the 24-year-old intern whose disappearance here captured the nation's attention nine years ago.
Former California congressman Gary Condit, once considered a suspect in Levy's disappearance, helped neither himself nor law enforcement with evasive testimony Monday. But by Thursday, a career criminal was giving his all with a solid and even courageous appearance on the witness stand.
"I needed (my family) to believe in me, to trust in me to do the right thing," former gang enforcer Armando Morales explained Thursday.
Morales was the 38th prosecution witness to appear since trial began Oct. 25, and the first to directly link accused killer Ingmar Guandique to Levy's May 1, 2001 slaying. Morales can be thanked, if Guandique is convicted after prosecutors rest next week and the defense stages what's expected to be a brief case.
The 49-year-old co-founder of the Fresno Bulldogs gang in Fresno, Calif., says Guandique, a former cellmate, confessed in 2006 to killing Levy during an attempted robbery in Washington's Rock Creek Park.
Morales followed a number of technical witnesses who offered mostly tedious testimony about inconclusive blood, semen and DNA testing. None of the forensic evidence connects Guandique to the crime. By Wednesday afternoon, courtroom spectator seats were vacant and fatigued reporters were seeking signs that jurors, too, might be nodding off.
Courtroom 320 snapped to attention, though, when Morales, manacled and in an orange jail jumpsuit, recounted Guandique's alleged confession. Morales noted that his testimony puts him at risk during the remaining six years of his prison sentence, and he sounded sincere in rejecting defense allegations that he swapped false testimony for preferential treatment.
"If they was to let me go home, I would be happy, of course," Morales said, "(but) I didn't come here to get a benefit. ... If a benefit comes out of this, it's being able to come here and tell the truth."
Morales has a long rap sheet and a violent past. At one point, he explained to jurors how he used batteries and plastic utensils to craft a prison knife so he could stab enemies. He might be a con man.
He might also be a candidate for redemption, for those who fancy such notions. He's left the gang life, he says. He spoke of forgiveness. He was certainly the prosecution's best witness to date, along with two women who told last week by of being attacked by Guandique in Rock Creek Park.
Morales answered every question put to him. Condit did not.
Condit's two-hour appearance Monday was a tricky but essential moment for prosecutors. Condit could offer no evidence against Guandique. Prosecutors knew, though, that Guandique's defense attorneys would be invoking Condit's name throughout the trial, planting doubt in jurors' minds. That meant prosecutors had to dispose of the notion that a former congressman deserved suspicion, also known as the elephant in the room.
Condit, testifying while his daughter, Cadee, watched from the first row, denied killing Levy. That was the minimum that Assistant U.S. Attorney Amanda Haines and her associate, Fernando Campoamor-Sanchez, required.
Under accusatory cross-examination by defense attorney Maria Hawilo, though, Condit essentially shut down. He repeatedly refused to answer questions about whether he had had an intimate relationship with Levy, saying he wanted to maintain a respect for privacy.
Condit's heated refusal to acknowledge what Haines had already stated — that he had "had an affair" with Levy — could undermine his reliability with jurors. That helps Guandique, whose defense relies in part on raising whispers of suspicion about others. Condit further undermined prosecutors by emphasizing defense observations about D.C. police bungling.
"I thought they were way off base," Condit said of initial Washington police efforts, "and I was beginning to feel they were somewhat incompetent."
Defense attorneys can fill in the blanks: If police blew it so badly in 2001, when Condit was targeted as a potential suspect, isn't it possible they have gone astray again with Guandique?
The 62-year-old Condit did himself no good, either. His brittle silence as he exited the courthouse, chased by a pack of reporters, suggested the former House member is no closer to public rehabilitation than he was in 2002, when his constituents in California's San Joaquin Valley voted him out of office.
Throughout the week, defense attorneys and prosecutors clashed over procedural and evidentiary matters. In particular, Guandique's attorneys have complained that Haines and Campoamor-Sanchez ambushed them with unexpected witnesses or evidence. So far, none of these skirmishes taking place outside of the earshot of jurors seems to have made a significant trial difference, though they demonstrate how seriously the competing sides take this 9-year-old case.
"We're trying to do the best we can," Haines said Thursday.