The lawyers were hot under their collars, one winter’s day long after the death of Chandra Levy.
It was Dec. 18, 2012, the date of an extraordinary court hearing.
A federal prison cell held Ingmar Guandique, who’d been convicted in November 2010 of killing Levy. He was into a 60-year sentence. In a secret location, the one-time Fresno, California, gang leader whose testimony had sealed Guandique’s fate was finishing a sentence of own.
Three-and-a-half years later, the defense attorneys’ diligence would free one inmate, expose another and return to unsolved mystery the question of what happened to Levy when she disappeared May 1, 2001.
But that was still in the future when attorneys gathered for the Dec. 18 hearing, key parts of which were kept hush-hush through transcript redaction at the Justice Department’s insistence.
“They’re asking everybody to keep secret the fact that (in) one of the major prosecutions in this courthouse in years, a real question has arisen about the truthfulness (of a) government witness,” Harvard Law School-trained defense attorney James Klein told the judge.
The shroud of secrecy would eventually drop, removed one fold at a time by a team of Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia attorneys.
Prosecutors and defense attorneys both declined to speak on the record about the long-running Levy case and what could happen next, but court filings, hearing transcripts and years of reporting shed some light on the unraveling of one of the highest profile murder prosecutions in recent memory.
In more than 40 court hearings after that December 2012 session, while Guandique was either absent or shackled and silent, the defense attorneys hammered a Justice Department whose myriad agencies sometimes moved sluggishly. The defense team that brought as many as four attorneys into court at one time secured an estimated 50,000 documents, questioned officials and abraded, at times, their adversaries.
“I know your honor was upset with us because we said something about ineptitude,” Klein told the judge at one early hearing.
At another hearing, Assistant U.S. Attorney Fernando Campoamor complained that he was “being accused of a coverup and of being incompetent” by defense attorneys. In a similar vein, Assistant U.S. Attorney David Gorman said it was “quite offensive” for defense attorneys to “throw at us that we’re holding back anything for litigation or investigative tactical advantage.”
“It’s too bad that they think it’s offensive,” defense attorney Jonathan Anderson countered at the same hearing.
E-mails from defense attorney Eugene K. Ohm and others flew forth, at times, after 10 or 11 o’clock at night. The public defenders don’t record billable hours, but if they did, they would have been considerable.
Underscoring their aggressiveness, defense attorneys had publicly articulated, in graphic terms, their interest in investigating former San Joaquin Valley congressman Gary Condit, whose clandestine sexual relationship with Levy drove public attention to the case.
Now, following the Justice Department’s July 28 decision to drop charges, the 34-year-old Guandique awaits deportation to his native El Salvador. He was released from D.C. Jail on July 29; a prior felony conviction immediately sent him into deportation proceedings.
Guandique’s ex-cellmate who testified against him, Fresno native Armando Morales, is free but tagged publicly as an informant. The federal prosecutors who secured Guandique’s 2010 conviction, led by Assistant U.S. Attorney Amanda Haines, may be shadowed by defense attorneys’ questions about their work.
And investigators seem no closer to solving the mystery of what happened to Levy on May 1, 2001, the day the former Bureau of Prisons intern disappeared shortly before she was to return to her family’s Modesto, California, home.
“The Metropolitan Police Department will continue to pursue any new leads that are uncovered or brought to our attention,” the department said in a statement Thursday.
Jack Barrett, D.C.’s former superintendent of detectives, added in an interview Thursday that it was “extremely disappointing” to see charges dropped against Guandique, who he still believes is the right suspect. At the same time, he offered “kudos” to the defense attorneys for “the information they developed” on the case.
Washington, D.C.’s federally funded Public Defender Service, which represented Guandique even before his 2009 arrest, employs about 224 staffers. Although most criminal cases don’t go to trial, the public defenders win acquittals in more than half of those that do, according to agency records.
The attorneys lost Guandique’s first trial, when jurors concluded he had killed Levy in Washington’s Rock Creek Park. The testimony of Morales that Guandique had confessed to him while they were cellmates in 2006 at the high-security U.S. Penitentiary Big Sandy in Kentucky proved crucial.
The defense attorneys, though, were given only two weeks to investigate Morales prior to his dramatic 2010 testimony, in which he came across as streetsmart and thoughtful and said he had no prior history of informing.
“I still subscribed to them false philosophies of ‘you don’t tell,’ ” Morales explained.
Roughly a year later, Fresno Police Department detectives investigating several 1996 murders found transcripts revealing Morales’s 1998 assistance to Fresno County sheriff’s detectives. The Fresno police wanted to talk more with Morales. They reached out to D.C.-based prosecutors, who appeared resistant at first. Eventually, in late 2012, the prosecutors advised the judge and Guandique’s defense attorneys that they had come across information casting doubt on Morales’ testimony that he’d never been an informant before.
The defense attorneys secured a new trial in May 2015, four days before Haines and Campoamor were scheduled to answer defense questions.
The defense attorneys were going to delve into, among other topics, the alleged disappearance of 14 pages of Haine’s trial preparation notes and the prosecutors’ alleged failure to turn over a crucial cover letter detailing Morales’s record of cooperating with law enforcement.
Defense attorneys say prosecutors “suppressed” the evidence, a charge the Justice Department rejects. Prosecutors told a judge that they believed the cover letter was turned over and that “they were not aware of there being any missing pages from that package of notes.”
The Public Defenders Service says it was only with great effort that Morales’ record was uncovered. “It took years of post-conviction investigation and litigation by the Public Defender Service . . . to uncover the extent of the flaws in Mr. Guandique’s trial and to force the government to search and re-examine its own records,” the agency’s general counsel, Laura E. Hankins, said in a statement.
The rising questions about Morales’s credibility climaxed in late July, when a new witness produced tape-recorded evidence suggesting that he had lied during Guandique’s first trial. The witness described to McClatchy what happened on condition of anonymity; prosecutors said only that “recent unforeseen developments” prompted them to drop the case.
“The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia is deeply committed to ensuring that justice is served in all of its cases,” spokesman William Miller said in a statement.