Courts & Crime

Convicted killer of Chandra Levy pursues new trial

Nearly four years since a jury convicted Salvadoran immigrant Ingmar Guandique of killing former intern Chandra Levy, the stage is set for a potential reprise.

Guandique wants a new trial. Prosecutors say there’s no need. A judge will decide after hearing again from the likes of Armando Morales, a one-time Fresno gang leader whose testimony helped put Guandique away and who since has been facing close scrutiny of his own.

“The government’s post-conviction investigation of Mr. Morales has been long and time-consuming,” noted the government’s most recent brief, signed by Assistant U.S. Attorney Margaret J. Chriss. “It has involved extensive travel and hundreds of attorney and investigator hours.”

A high-stakes, three-day hearing originally set for October and now rescheduled to start Nov. 12 will give Guandique’s attorneys their shot at Morales, as well as the prosecutors who both locked him up and later relied upon his testimony.

The upcoming hearing also returns a public spotlight to the Levy case, which first drew national attention in May 2001 when the 24-year-old recent graduate student disappeared days before returning to her family’s Modesto, Calif., home. Levy’s skeletal remains were found a year later in Washington, D.C.’s Rock Creek Park.

Levy’s disappearance incited rumors, and then revelations, that she had been having an affair with then-Rep. Gary Condit. Condit, who lost his re-election bid in 2002, has long since faded from public view and is no longer involved in the case.

Instead, the hearing in D.C. Superior Court and Guandique’s hopes for a new trial could come down to this key question: Should prosecutors in Washington, D.C. have known what officials elsewhere knew about Morales’s past?

The answer matters because Morales told Guandique’s jury that Morales was unaccustomed to confiding in law enforcement. Morales’ declaration presumably boosted his credibility when he subsequently testified that Guandique had confessed to him that he killed Levy.

“Armando Morales provided testimony that was false in material respects, and the government had evidence it was false,” defense attorney Jonathan W. Anderson wrote. “What they knew about Morales should have caused them to make inquiries of the law enforcement agencies that knew Morales best.”

Defense attorneys peg their new-trial claims to prosecutorial obligations established under several Supreme Court decisions. One, a 1963 ruling that followed a Maryland murder, requires prosecutors to share exculpatory evidence with the defense. Another, a 1959 ruling that followed a fatal robbery in Illinois, requires prosecutors to correct testimony they know to be false. A 1972 ruling stemming from a Louisiana forgery case requires prosecutors to share potentially discrediting information about witnesses, such as plea agreements.

Attorneys use shorthand in talking about these legal rules, referring to Brady, Napue and Giglio obligations. These familiar rules face a little bit of a new twist in the Guandique case, involving the workings of a large bureaucracy.

The conflict starts with Morales’s credibility-enhancing testimony, now seen as false, that he was unaccustomed to cooperating with law enforcement.

“I’ve never done that before,” Morales told the Guandique grand jury, when asked about snitching. “I’ve never done nothing like that.”

Some parts of the Justice Department knew better.

In 1996, defense attorneys subsequently learned, Morales provided information to investigators from the Fresno-based FBI and from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives concerning the Fresno Bulldogs and Bulldog Nation gangs. In 1998, he provided information to Fresno County Sheriff’s Department investigators looking into three murders, and he tipped off prison officials to drug dealing and weapons at U.S. Penitentiary Atlanta.

“The evidence would have changed the course of the trial,” Anderson argued. “Had it been presented to the jurors, they would have discredited Morales’s testimony and acquitted.”

Legally speaking, Anderson declared, “all of the information possessed” by other Justice Department offices “is attributable” to the Washington, D.C.-based trial prosecutors who were using Morales as a witness.

The Justice Department counters that defense attorneys are seeking “the broadest possible interpretation” of what it means to be part of the “prosecution team” that shoulders the Brady, Napue and Giglio obligations. Officials further note that “none of these documents” concerning Morales’s informant past “were in the possession” of prosecutors at the time of Guandique’s trial.

“The federal prosecutor’s obligation to learn of information in the files of other DoJ agencies has limits,” the Justice Department’s most recent legal brief states, adding that courts “have declined to view DoJ agencies as monolithic entities.”

The decision whether to order a new trial will be up to Superior Court Judge Gerald Fisher. If he decides not to, Guandique’s attorneys could file an appeal. In the meantime, Guandique is serving out a 60-year sentence. Morales, too, remains in prison, under a pseudonym, for his protection.