Courts & Crime

Condit, police roughed up during first week of Chandra Levy murder trial

WASHINGTON — The Chandra Levy murder trial ended its first week leaving no clear winners but having diminished several reputations.

Prosecutors are still laboring to make their circumstantial case against accused killer Ingmar Guandique. So far, it doesn't seem like they've closed the deal.

Beyond a shadow of a doubt, though, the long-awaited trial has already soured the names of former congressman Gary Condit, past leaders of the Washington Metropolitan Police Department and some individual investigators. Testimony has tainted each, for one failure or another.

Condit, who represented the San Joaquin Valley in Congress between 1989 and 2002, may have had the toughest week. A prosecutor called him a philanderer, a detective called him a liar and, without explicitly accusing him of anything, defense attorneys keep insinuating Condit's name into the trial narrative.

"He was having an affair with Chandra Levy," Assistant U.S. Attorney Amanda Haines said in her opening statements Monday, "but it has nothing to do with the murder of Chandra Levy."

The original supervisor on the Levy case, Detective-Sergeant Ronald Wyatt, added under defense cross-examination that he had asked Condit "a straightforward question" about whether he was sexually involved with the much younger Levy.

"He denied it," Wyatt said.

Twenty-six witnesses have testified so far, some of them compellingly, but it's Condit's potential testimony that helps draw the dozen or so reporters to Courtroom 320 each day. Prosecutors identified Condit as one who may testify and attorneys predict it will happen, though the timing is unclear.

"He expects to set the record straight, to tell the true story of what occurred," Los Angeles-based attorney Bert Field said in an e-mail.

Field has worked periodically with Condit over a number of years. Recently, Condit also hired San Diego-based criminal defense attorney Thomas Warwick Jr. to represent him in the Levy trial.

If Condit does testify, he will expose himself to what could be a reputation-smudging cross-examination by Guandique's defense attorneys. Lead defense attorney Santha Sonenberg, in particular, has shown herself to be highly aggressive.

On Thursday, for instance, Sonenberg pressed a police evidence technician with questions that set the foundation for what's likely to be a sharp cross-examination Monday that focuses on investigative errors.

Earlier, during her Tuesday cross-examination of Wyatt, Sonenberg brought out the embarrassing fact that police had neglected to secure the security tapes from Levy's Washington apartment. By the time investigators thought of it, the video from April 30 and May 1, 2001, had been taped over.

"You missed the opportunity," Sonenberg told Wyatt.

"The tapes were gone, yes," Wyatt conceded.

Wyatt also implicitly criticized former Washington Police Chief Charles Ramsey and his top assistant, Terrance Gainer, who he indicated were "second guessing" the early investigation because of the intense media attention. Wyatt said he was taken off the case after a month because he asked the command staff to back off.

Ramsey is now Philadelphia's police commissioner and Gainer is the Sergeant at Arms of the U.S. Senate. Neither is scheduled to testify.

Levy was last seen publicly the night of April 30, 2001, when she went to the nearby Washington Sports Club to cancel her membership. Prosecutors say Guandique attacked her the next day while she was on the Western Ridge Trail in Washington's Rock Creek Park.

Guandique's defense attorneys stress shortcomings in the police search of the park and handling of the evidence found there. In this, they have some support. The man who found Levy's skull on May 22, 2001, cabinetmaker Philip Palmer, testified he thought police officers were "appalling" and "unprofessional" in their initial handling of the remains.

The lead evidence technician, John Allie, returns to the stand Monday for further cross-examination of what happened during the 27 days that police searched the site where Levy's remains were found.

On Thursday, Allie probably helped prosecutors by breaking through what has sometimes been a dull litany of procedural and technical testimony. At Haines' direction, Allie held up recovered pieces of Levy's clothing: a red bra, black underwear, black tights and gray University of Southern California T-shirt.

For a moment, the courtroom fell still.

Prosecutors had another good moment when apartment manager Sheila Phillips recalled seeing Guandique with a scratched and bruise face sometime around May 1, 2001. They were able to convey to jurors some of Levy's life force when her father, Dr. Robert Levy, testified, although Levy occasionally veered off into what sounded like denunciations of Condit.

Prosecutors also did well with two articulate witnesses, writing instructor Halle Shilling and attorney Christy Weigand, who testified vividly about how Guandique had attacked them in Rock Creek Park in 2001.

But Amber Fitzgerald, a witness who recalls seeing Guandique and feeling threatened by him in Rock Creek Park in early May 2001, appeared far less compelling and definitive.

"I've just tried to do the best I can to figure this out," Fitzgerald said when her memory failed.

Prosecutors now say they expect to finish their case the week of Nov. 8, about a week earlier than previously predicted.

"We're moving expeditiously," Haines said.