Nearly 10 years after she was killed, Chandra Levy finally got justice yesterday when a jury found a 29-year old Salvadoran immigrant guilty of first-degree murder.
This particular verdict means more than justice for the victim, however. It is a vindication for the man who was convicted in the court of public opinion of killing her: former Rep. Gary Condit, a California Democrat.
It didn't take long after Levy's death for the press to shine a light of suspicion on Mr. Condit after the District's Metropolitan Police inappropriately leaked to the media that Mr. Condit may have had an affair with her.
There wasn't a single piece of evidence linking Mr. Condit to Levy's death, but that didn't stop mainstream media from suggesting Mr. Condit's involvement in her disappearance while the supermarket tabloids repeatedly published cover stories that outright accused the California congressman of having had her kidnapped and murdered, with specific "shocking new scenarios" that were pure fantasy.
Cable television news shows featured so-called experts and attorneys, none of whom had any actual link to the case, who espoused their personal theories on how Mr. Condit could have abducted Levy and had her murdered.
In 2001, Vanity Fair writer Dominick Dunne said he had found a well-respected source in the Middle East who had personal knowledge that Levy had been sold into sex slavery there, and in 2002, a prominent criminal defense attorney said he had found "proof" that Mr. Condit had had Levy murdered and disposed of her corpse in Baltimore Harbor.
None of that turned out to be true, however.
"We knew those stories were made up just so the media could sell magazines and newspapers, and it felt surreal to see someone you love falsely accused of murder on the cover of a supermarket tabloid when passing through a checkout line," said Chad Condit, the former congressman's son, in an exclusive telephone interview.
"It's like a numbing effect to see credible journalists on television speculate and point fingers at someone you love and say they're a murderer when it's not true; it's almost criminal. The most frustrating part is that there's little you can do about it except sue, which is a pretty difficult and expensive procedure that most people can't afford."
On May 22, 2002, a D.C. resident happened upon Levy's remains in Rock Creek Park, where it turns out several other women had been assaulted. After further investigation, police learned that a Salvadoran immigrant named Ingmar Guandique who was already serving time for assaulting women in that same area was boasting inside prison walls that he was Levy's real killer.
In 2006, after hearing rumors about this from sources in Washington, I made a phone call to one of the lead detectives at the Metropolitan Police Department and told the police I had had extensive interaction with members of the Condit family and that I thought it would be interesting for us to exchange some information.
To my surprise, the detective told me that the police weren't interested in "anything involving Gary Condit" at that time.
When I asked him why not, he told me of Mr. Condit, "He's been cleared."
I was stunned that I had never heard anything about this and immediately called several national news outlets to tell them that I had a breaking investigative story involving the Chandra Levy case.
My pitch to report that D.C. law enforcement sources were no longer considering Mr. Condit a suspect was dismissed by every news organization I contacted. No one was interested.
"I think everyone has assumed that by now," an editor told me at a major metropolitan newspaper in California. "They would have charged him by now if they thought he really did it. I think everyone knows that."
I did a quick search on the Internet, but I couldn't find a single story that reported Mr. Condit had been cleared. After all, it seemed perfectly fine to imply Mr. Condit was guilty when there was no evidence or sources saying that, but now that there were police sources saying he was cleared, no one seemed to care.
"I think the press should have covered Gary's innocence as much as they implied his guilt the moment anyone realized the police had cleared him, Chad Condit said. "We hope at least this verdict brings some peace to the Levy family even though there's probably no way they can get over what's happened to them. Hopefully now, the real story will finally be told and the press will clear Gary Condit of murder."
Jeffrey Scott Shapiro is a former Washington, D.C., prosecutor and investigative reporter who worked for the Globe tabloid until he reported his editors to the FBI.
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