Courts & Crime

Judge rules Levy murder trial to go on despite police trickery

WASHINGTON _ A judge Thursday kept alive a slimmed-down case against the man accused of killing former Modesto resident Chandra Levy despite what defense attorneys now call an "illegal" and "unethical" pen-pal ruse by investigators.

In a surprise eve-of-trial clash that revealed detectives' trickery, D.C. Superior Court Judge Gerald I. Fisher rejected defense efforts to either dismiss the case against accused killer Ingmar Guandique or take it out of the hands of federal prosecutors.

"This case is going forward to trial," Fisher declared during a hearing that grew markedly tense at times.

Defense attorneys Santha Sonenberg and Maria Hawilo had sought to end the case after they learned this week about how detectives tried to fool Guandique into writing letters implicating himself in Levy's May 2001 death.

"Law enforcement posed as a pen pal to Mr. Guandique, using the pseudonym Maria Lopez, and started corresponding with him in an effort to elicit incriminating statements," Sonenberg said.

Guandique did not respond to the "Maria Lopez" correspondence that occurred between 2004 and 2005, although it is unclear whether he saw through the detectives' ploy. Prosecutors have previously cited other letters attributed to Guandique in which he allegedly owned up to killing Levy.

In a legal filing late Wednesday, one day after learning about the previously undisclosed pen-pal tactic, Sonenberg and Hawilo argued that detectives acted in a manner that was "illegal, unethical and improper" when they contacted Guandique without his lawyers' knowledge.

At the time of the false correspondence in 2004 and 2005, Guandique was in federal prison on unrelated charges. He had not yet been charged in the Levy murder, although the public defenders' office was already representing him.

"This goes to the antics, the shenanigans, the lengths to which they've gone to prosecute Mr. Guandique," Sonenberg said.

In another, previously disclosed, encounter, detectives falsely told Guandique that they had DNA evidence linking him to the Levy murder. No such evidence exists.

It's not yet clear exactly which investigating officer wrote the "Maria Lopez" letter, or why the correspondence only came to light late Tuesday, less than a week before the start of Guandique's trial. The 2004 and 2005 correspondence, though, apparently occurred before the current team of detectives and prosecutors took over the case.

Prosecutors on Thursday bristled at what one called the "inflammatory" statements made by Sonenberg.

"She may not like it, but that doesn't mean it's improper or unethical," Assistant U.S. Attorney Fernando Campoamor-Sanchez said.

Fisher did not opine on the propriety of the false pen-pal correspondence, other than to say that it would not be "appropriate" to dismiss the case or remove Campoamor-Sanchez and his fellow prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Attorney Amanda Haines.

Haines revealed Thursday that prosecutors will be voluntarily dropping three charges against Guandique, in which the alleged prison gang member had been accused of threatening witnesses. Haines characterized the move as "an effort to streamline" the case.

Guandique is accused of killing Levy on May 1, 2001, during an attempted sexual assault in Washington's Rock Creek Park. At the time, the former Bureau of Prisons intern and graduate student was reportedly planning on returning to California.

The hearing Thursday was the last prior to trial, which begins Monday with jury selection.

Fisher largely ruled out a defense effort to have a Loyola University Law School professor testify on prison informants, who provide the core of the prosecution's case. Fisher also seemed inclined not to permit defense attorneys to allege that Guandique voluntarily took a lie detector test early in the investigation.

Though lie detector test results themselves are not admissible, Guandique's attorneys hoped to introduce his taking of the test as evidence that he had nothing to hide.

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