- The Washington Times - Monday, October 25, 2010

As the trial of the man accused of killing 24-year-old Washington intern Chandra Levy opened Monday, the prosecution and defense already agreed on one thing: Law enforcement botched the investigation from the start.

The salacious discovery that Levy had carried on an affair with Gary A. Condit, a married congressman three decades her senior, at the time of her disappearance “derailed the investigation,” according to Assistant U.S. Attorney Amanda Haines, the lead prosecutor in the case.

“That secret of Chandra Levy’s was exposed during the summer of 2001 and it has nothing to do with her murder,” Ms. Haines said during opening statements in a trial expected to last more than a month in D.C. Superior Court.

In the summer before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the case of the missing intern captivated the nation’s capital and much of the rest of the country. The secret affair and hints that Mr. Condit, who is expected to testify during the trial, might have been involved in her disappearance drove much of the interest in the case. The skeletal remains of Levy, who had been jogging in Rock Creek Park, weren’t found until about a year later.

Ms. Haines said investigators, distracted by sensationalized media coverage, had “a secret and not-so-secret agenda” to build a case against a sitting congressman. It was a misstep she said kept them from the real killer: Salvadoran illegal immigrant Ingmar Guandique, the 29-year-old defendant.

Attorneys for Guandique — a reputed member of the violent street gang Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, who wore a cream-colored turtleneck to cover his gang tattoos — agree that law enforcement bungled the case. But defense attorney Maria Hawilo went a step further than prosecutors in her opening statement, saying the investigation is broken beyond repair.

“They can’t fix failures,” said Ms. Hawilo, a public defender. “They can’t undo their mistakes.”

Instead, she said, they have found an easy scapegoat in Guandique, who is serving a 10-year federal prison sentence for assaulting two other women in Rock Creek Park. Ms. Hawilo acknowledged that her client attacked the other women around the time of Levy’s disappearance, but said he has been punished for those crimes, which she described as attempted robberies.

Now, she said, prosecutors seek to punish him for “sins of the past.”

“Ingmar Guandique is not guilty and nothing that happens during this trial will prove he is,” Ms. Hawilo said. “He did not rob her. He did not rape her. He did not kill her.”

She said much of the prosecution’s case is built on the testimony of jailhouse informants with “deals on their minds, hopes of benefits and knowledge of how the system works,” who are expected to tell the jury that Guandique told them he killed Levy.

Ms. Hawilo also criticized the government for failing to test a DNA sample found on Levy’s running tights. She suggested such evidence could exonerate her client and implicate the actual killer.

“They haven’t bothered to check whose DNA that is because it doesn’t fit their theory,” she said.

Ms. Haines said the DNA came from a small number of skin cells that ended up on the running tights as the result of “contamination” from many people handling it as evidence after it was found in Rock Creek Park. She conceded the prosecution has little in the way of physical evidence, mostly because it took a year for Levy’s remains to be found.

“How Miss Levy died as opposed to who killed her will be a question you have for the rest of your life,” Ms. Haines told jurors.

Ms. Haines also acknowledged that there are no eyewitnesses in the case. “The harsh truth is Miss Levy died alone,” she said, but added that prosecutors will present a strong circumstantial case implicating Guandique.

Along with the testimony from jailhouse informants, she said, the prosecution will present evidence that Guandique suffered injuries consistent with a scuffle that he failed to account for honestly around the time of Levy’s disappearance.

She suggested that the testimony from the other victims will be especially convincing. “They are lock-step similar with one exception: They survived and she did not,” she said.

Ms. Haines, who specializes in cold cases and was the prosecutor in the 2006 murder trial of New York Times reporter David Rosenbaum, said the bits and pieces of circumstantial evidence will come together to paint a powerful portrait of guilt.

“Let these circumstances point you in the right direction,” she said.

Toward that goal, prosecutors called one of Guandique’s victims to the stand Monday. Halle Shilling, who was targeted mere weeks after Levy went missing, testified vividly and at times emotionally about her attack, which she said left her feeling “as afraid and alone as I have felt in my entire life.”

Ms. Shilling, a mother of three who now lives in Southern California, said she recalled jogging past a shirtless Guandique in Rock Creek Park.

“He was creepy; he was watching me,” she said. “He had tracked me as I ran by.”

As she ran through an isolated trail, Ms. Shilling slowed down to let what she thought was another runner pass her. Next thing she knew, she said, Guandique jumped on her back.

He had a knife in his hand and the two struggled. Ms. Shilling eventually fell to the ground.

“I screamed ‘No,’ over and over and over again,” she said. “I screamed as loud as I knew how to scream.”

She recalled her attacker trying to quiet her with a “Shhh.” Her headphones knocked off her head, Ms. Shilling said, she could for the first time hear the rushing water of Rock Creek and the relatively distant sounds of passing cars.

“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.”

On her back, she said, she was kicking at Guandique when she remembered something from a self-defense class she had taken years earlier. She said she thrust her hand into Guandique’s mouth and “clenched and scratched.” Guandique bit down hard on her finger, breaking the skin, but just as quickly he stopped fighting and ran off.

Jurors also heard testimony from a D.C. woman who said a man who resembled Guandique followed her in Rock Creek Park around the time Levy went missing. Amber Fitzgerald said she ran as fast as she could away from the man.

The defense sought to cast doubt on Ms. Fitzgerald’s testimony on cross-examination by pointing out that she could not be exactly certain what day the incident took place and did not come forward to police until several years later when she saw Guandique’s picture in a newspaper report about the Levy case.

The trial is expected to continue Wednesday.

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