Politics & Government

Risky strategy: New Chandra Levy case depends on snitches

Gary Condit in 2001.
Gary Condit in 2001. Chuck Kennedy / MCT

WASHINGTON — The detectives who think they've solved the murder of Chandra Levy are leaning on jailhouse snitches, a potent but potentially dangerous resource for prosecutors.

At least two unnamed inmate informants are cited in the seven-page affidavit filed on Tuesday to obtain a warrant for the arrest of Ingmar Guandique. The informants offer gruesome details at the heart of the case against Guandique.

"Although inconsistent in some respects with accounts he gave to other witnesses, Guandique admitted to (one informant) that he had killed Chandra Levy, and claimed others were also involved with him in the homicide," the affidavit filed by Detective Todd Williams states.

The inconsistencies include how, exactly, Levy died. One witness quoted Guandique as saying he cut her throat. Another witness quoted Guandique as saying he choked her. Details likewise seemingly vary about whether a rape was committed or whether Levy was gagged.

Some narrative inconsistencies are inevitable. Others may foreshadow the challenges facing prosecutors as they bring Guandique to trial.

"Inmate testimony is inherently unreliable," Ellen Yaroshefsky, a clinical professor of law at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York, said on Wednesday, "and courts are cognizant of the fact that it's really unreliable."

Tellingly, Northwestern University Law School's Center on Wrongful Convictions studied 111 death row inmates exonerated between 1973 and 2004. False testimony, most of it from inmates, occurred in 49 percent of the cases, the study found.

Police stress that they have a blend of evidence that Guandique killed Levy on May 1, 2001, in Washington's Rock Creek Park. Levy was 24 at the time and a graduate student making plans to return home to Modesto, Calif. Her skeletal remains were found in May 2002.

"We are only at the beginning," acting U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Taylor said Tuesday. "The investigation has been ongoing."

D.C. Superior Court Judge Ronald Wertheim, who was named to the bench in 1981 by President Ronald Reagan, was sufficiently convinced Tuesday that the detective's affidavit showed "probable cause." He signed Guandique's arrest warrant.

Prosecutors expect it will now take from 45 to 60 days to move Guandique to Washington from his cell at United States Penitentiary Victorville in California, about 85 miles northeast of Los Angeles, where he's serving a 10-year sentence on other charges. At trial, prosecutors must prove Guandique's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

The two public defenders representing Guandique, Santha Sonenberg and Maria Hawilo, denounced what they called a "flawed investigation, characterized by the many mistakes and missteps" of investigating agencies. They declined further comment about the case or the use of jailhouse informants.

"I'm going through a period of grieving again," Chandra's mother, Susan, said on Wednesday, declining further comment.

Any trial, however, is bound to question the reliability of jailhouse informants.

In previous testimony before the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice, Yaroshefsky cited the incentives that inmates have to fabricate stories. Prosecutors may offer leniency or easier treatment, or inmates may have agendas of their own.

"The testimony of in-custody informants potentially presents even greater risks than the testimony of accomplices, who are incriminating themselves as well as the defendant," the commission noted in its 2006 report.

At least 17 states now require corroboration for the testimony of jailhouse informants.

The affidavit does not identify witnesses by name, instead calling them "W1" and "W2" and so on. Some identities are obvious, including two women who already have testified that they were attacked by Guandique. The inmate status of several others can be inferred.

A witness called "W11," for instance, was said to be "present" when Guandique grew anxious following "a recent news report on the radio, broadcasting that he would be arrested soon for the Chandra Levy murder." This places the witness inside Victorville prison. This same witness claims Guandique "over the course of several weeks" confessed involvement in Levy's murder.

Another witness,"W12," is quoted as hearing Guandique implicate himself in Levy's murder in 2002. Guandique was in jail at the time.

Two other witnesses who said they'd been in communication with Guandique for a number of years said he told them that he'd killed a woman in a D.C. park.


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