Courts & Crime

Justice Dept. relents and agrees to new trial for man convicted of killing Chandra Levy

Assistant U.S. attorneys Amanda Haines and Fernando Campoamor-Sanchez (left and right) will be returning to D.C. Superior Court in Washington the week of May 26 for crucial post-trial hearings in the Chandra Levy murder case. In this file photo, Haines and Campoamor-Sanchez leave the D.C. Superior Court on Feb. 11, 2011.
Assistant U.S. attorneys Amanda Haines and Fernando Campoamor-Sanchez (left and right) will be returning to D.C. Superior Court in Washington the week of May 26 for crucial post-trial hearings in the Chandra Levy murder case. In this file photo, Haines and Campoamor-Sanchez leave the D.C. Superior Court on Feb. 11, 2011. AP

In a stunning legal reversal, federal prosecutors relented on Friday and set the stage for a new trial of the man convicted in 2010 of killing former intern Chandra Levy.

Acting just days before a series of high-stakes courtroom confrontations set to start next Tuesday, the prosecutors advised defense attorneys that they would no longer oppose a motion for a new trial for Ingmar Guandique.

“In preparing for this hearing, the government has come to the conclusion that the passage of time and the unique circumstances of this case will prevent the government from eliciting testimony that will sufficiently elucidate the disputed issues,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Margaret J. Chriss wrote.

In a four-page legal filing made public late Friday afternoon, Chriss added that “the interests of justice will therefore best be served by the government’s withdrawal of its opposition to the defendant’s motion and affording him a new trial.”

If the judge grants the defense request, the prosecutors’ unexpected decision will return to the national spotlight a murder mystery that most thought had been long-since solved. A date for the new trial has not yet been set.

In a statement, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said: “We remain firm in our conviction that the jury’s verdict was correct and are preparing for a new trial to ensure that Mr. Guandique is held accountable. The U.S. Attorney’s Office is deeply committed to ensuring that justice is served in all of its cases.”

Guandique’s attorneys praised the decision.

“The government’s case against Ingmar Guandique was based on a lie,” defense attorney Jonathan Anderson said. “We are gratified that the government has now acknowledged that it cannot defend this conviction, and we look forward to justice being served in a new trial.”

The decision by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia, and its timing, also means defense attorneys won’t get to cross-examine the original trial prosecutor over her handling of a former Fresno gang leader whose testimony was crucial in Guandique’s conviction.

The testimony by former Fresno gang leader Armando Morales later became clouded by post-trial revelations about his previously undisclosed record of cooperating with law enforcement. In a long-anticipated hearing starting next Tuesday, Guandique’s attorneys were going to get their first shot at questioning Assistant U.S. Attorney Amanda Haines.

“The focus of these proceedings is what did the government know, and when did it know it,” D.C. Superior Court Judge Gerald Fisher said in a recent hearing.

Based in large part on the testimony of Morales, a jury in November 2010 convicted Guandique of first-degree murder for the 2001 killing of Levy. At the time of Levy’s death, she was preparing to return to her family’s Modesto, Calif., home following completion of a Bureau of Prisons internship.

Levy’s fate drew national attention at the time of her disappearance, and again during Guandique’s 2010 trial, amid revelations that she had been having an affair with then-congressman Gary Condit. Prosecutors said Condit was never a suspect in the killing, but his reputation was in tatters following the revelations of the affair.

Morales testified, compellingly, that Guandique had confessed to him while they were cellmates in a federal prison in Kentucky. Morales told jurors that he had no prior experience as an informant, which seemingly contributed to his credibility.

Prosecutors did not have any DNA evidence linking Guandique to Levy.

But after Guandique was convicted and sentenced to 60 years in prison, Justice Department officials say they learned in 2012 that Morales had earlier cooperated with law enforcement. Ever since, attorneys have undertaken an exhausting and occasionally frustrating inquiry.

“It’s a bit like finding a needle in a haystack,” Assistant U.S. Attorney David Gorman told Fisher at one point during a May 18 hearing.

Morales is now being held at an undisclosed prison, as he awaits his scheduled release next year following completion of a sentence imposed in 1996 on weapons charges.

The victim’s mother, Susan Levy, said she isn’t particularly rattled at the news.

“I just want justice to do its thing and do it correctly,” she said Friday afternoon, only moments after receiving courtesy notice from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Washington.

“I’d like to make sure that the person caught is responsible for what happened. No matter what happens, it’s not going to bring my daughter back,” Levy added

The now-canceled hearings that were to start Tuesday would have built upon a mountain of law enforcement, prison and other documents whose collection has been both painstaking and, defense attorneys believe, incomplete. The Justice Department assigned three paralegals, two full-time attorneys and one part-time attorney to the task of reviewing materials, at one point.

Despite that effort, defense attorney Jonathan W. Anderson nonetheless told Fisher on May 18: “We know that there are relevant emails missing.”

Defense attorneys also had indicated they might be seeking sanctions against the Justice Department for its alleged failures in producing documents.

“The government delayed its responses solely for the purpose of delaying Mr. Guandique’s discovery of material information,” Anderson alleged in a recent court filing.

At times, documents have been turned over at nearly the last minute. For instance, a heavily redacted memo from Haines about Morales was given to defense attorneys at 6:45 p.m. Sunday, May 17, one day before a hearing.

Further underscoring the courtroom climate that would have been awaiting Haines and other Justice Department witnesses, Anderson asked pointedly at the May 18 hearing whether Haines had been disciplined by her superiors. Gorman quickly said she had not been.

“Quite the opposite,” Gorman said.

Haines received a Justice Department award for “Superior Performance as an Assistant U.S. Attorney.”

Garth Stapley of the Modesto Bee also contributed to this story