- The Washington Times - Monday, November 22, 2010

The case of the missing Washington intern devastated a family, destroyed a congressman’s career and sparked a media frenzy, but the question of who killed Chandra Levy went unanswered for nearly a decade until a jury on Monday convicted a Salvadoran illegal immigrant of first-degree murder.

The jury of nine women and three men deliberated for 3½ days before convicting 29-year-old Ingmar Guandique of attempting to rob and kidnap the 24-year-old Levy before killing her on May 1, 2001, in Rock Creek Park, where she had gone for a run. Guandique, who already is imprisoned for attacking two other female joggers in the park, faces life in prison when he is sentenced Feb. 11.

“The verdict may have been guilty, but I have a life sentence of a lost limb missing from our family tree,” Levy’s mother, Susan Levy, told reporters outside D.C. Superior Court. “It’s a lifetime of heartbreak.”

Guandique’s conviction is, in some ways, an improbable end to the case as he had largely escaped the notice of investigators who were fixated on Rep. Gary A. Condit, a congressman at the time who was married but was romantically linked to Levy. For months, police and the media hounded the California Democrat.

Mr. Condit testified during the 11-day trial, but refused to answer questions about whether he had engaged in a romantic relationship with Levy.

While law enforcement officials long ago acknowledged they no longer thought Mr. Condit had anything to do with the crime, it wasn’t until last year that investigators charged Guandique.

Still, authorities had no physical evidence implicating Guandique because investigators did not find Levy’s remains until nearly a year after she went missing. Instead, prosecutors built a circumstantial case relying on testimony from a jailhouse informant who said Guandique confessed to killing Levy and from the two women Guandique attacked about the time Levy went missing.

In the end, the jury decided that was enough.

“There was a lot of evidence,” juror Linda Norton told reporters, but said the jury agreed not to discuss any specifics about their deliberations. “We went through it in a very deliberate manner.”

The U.S. attorney’s office in Washington, which prosecuted the case, and the Metropolitan Police Department said the verdict brought to the Levy family long-awaited justice.

“We recognize that today’s verdict can never restore the promise lost in Rock Creek Park nearly a decade ago, but it proves that it is never too late to hold a murderer accountable for his crimes,” said U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr. “It is never too late for justice to be done.”

Jurors wore grim expressions Monday afternoon as they filed into Superior Court Judge Gerald I. Fisher’s cramped courtroom. They avoided looking at Guandique, who wore a turtleneck that covered tattoos identifying him as a member of the violent street gang Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13.

Guandique showed no reaction as the verdict was read. One juror hung her head, while another wept.

“I think the word extraordinary would be an understatement,” Judge Fisher said of the jury’s work in the case. “I don’t think there’s anything more we can ask from jurors.”

Outside the courthouse after the verdict, the weeping juror, Emily Grimstead, said the trial was “a very wearing and tiring experience.”

“You’re dealing with somebody’s life, two people’s lives, and I don’t take that lightly. I take that very, very seriously,” she said. “I’m confident with the decision that we made, but it doesn’t mean that I don’t wish we didn’t have to be here today.”

When a reporter asked how she felt about the police wrongly pursuing Mr. Condit, Ms. Grimstead chided the media.

“I don’t really want to answer that question,” she said, “but it wasn’t just the police that were on the wrong track.”

Ms. Grimstead said the lesson for the media is “don’t make assumptions, it’s a lesson for everybody.”

Bad assumptions rested at the heart of Guandique’s defense. His attorneys, public defenders Santha Sonenberg and Maria Hawilo, said investigators hopelessly botched the case and Guandique was an easy scapegoat.

“They can’t fix failures,” Ms. Hawilo said during opening arguments. “They can’t undo their mistakes.”

Ms. Sonenberg and Ms. Hawilo declined to comment after the verdict.

During the trial, the defense was critical of the testimony of Armando Morales, a cellmate of Guandique’s who said the defendant confessed to killing Levy. The defense argued that Morales learned about Guandique’s connection to the case only after seeing a report about it on CNN.

The defense also argued that DNA from an unknown source found on Levy’s running tights could have exonerated their client. Prosecutors countered that the evidence was never tested because the DNA likely came from someone who handled the tights as evidence.

Prosecutors also said Morales’ testimony displayed knowledge of the case that could not have come from the CNN report. Specifically, they referred to the portion of Morales’ testimony in which he said Guandique told him he attacked Levy from behind, which is the same way he attacked the other women in Rock Creek Park.

Prosecutors relied heavily on the chilling testimony of the two women Guandique attacked to build their case. One of the women, Halle Shilling, who was targeted mere weeks after Levy went missing, said the attack left her feeling “as afraid and alone as I have felt in my entire life.”

She said Guandique “tracked” her as she ran by him in Rock Creek Park. He later attacked her on an isolated trail.

“At that point, I realized I was in a very remote part of the park,” she said. “I knew no one could hear me, no one could hear me.”

Guandique had a knife, but Ms. Shilling, similar to the other victim, ultimately was able to fight him off until he ran away. Prosecutors noted that both women who survived were larger than Levy and the attacks fit a pattern.

The only difference, they said, was that Levy didn’t survive.

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