Published October 18, 2010
Nine years after her murder, the Chandra Levy trial started Monday in Washington, D.C., and although there may be justice for the victim, there’s little that can be done to even the scales for Gary Condit, the man who was falsely accused of killing her.
Condit, who was a California valley Congressman at the time, was suspected of having Chandra kidnapped and murdered when no evidence supported that claim.
Condit’s problem was that he had a brief relationship with Chandra while she was interning for the U.S. Bureau of Prisons back in 2001. Naturally, when she disappeared, the media assumed Condit had something to do with it.
Because thanks to Hollywood and the tabloid press, the American public has believed for decades there is a secret Washington underground network for powerful politicians and corporations that enables them to have ‘troublemakers’ removed and ‘taken care of.’
Oliver Stone suggested in his movie, "JFK" that the federal government had President Kennedy assassinated. ‘Murder at 1600’ told a thrilling fictional tale in which White House officials framed their own president for the murder of a young staffer. John Grisham’s novel, "The Pelican Brief" pinned the assassination of two U.S. Supreme Court justices on a high-powered white collar Washington law firm.
But does any of this actually happen in real life?
As a former Washington, D.C. prosecutor who tried criminal cases in the nation’s capital and dealt regularly with the FBI, Secret Service and U.S. Capitol Police, I’ve never heard of a single instance in which anyone disappeared or was murdered by government officials.
There is no secret, underground Washington network.
Despite the abuse of power we sometimes see in Washington on the House and Senate floors or from the Oval Office, it’s highly doubtful that abuse of power includes kidnapping and murder. This isn’t Saddam Hussein’s Iraq or the former USSR.
This is the mentality, however, that deluded Americans into believing that Gary Condit was guilty – the fictional existence of “they,” as a secret society in Washington. That was the real tabloid story the press was interested in. Gary Condit was just a mere example of what everyone thought was behind the royal curtains of the power elite, and they were excited they’d finally caught one of these devious Washingtonians in the act.
The tabloids crucified Condit, and late night cable news channels followed those stories featuring so-called ‘experts’ who didn’t hesitate to ramble on and on with baseless theories.
In 2002, a prominent criminal defense lawyer from California was quoted once as saying he could “prove” Gary Condit was responsible for Chandra’s murder and that he had her corpse dumped in Baltimore Harbor. In 2001, Dominick Dunne from Vanity Fair reported that he had sources in the Middle East that swore Chandra was sold there as a sex slave.
None of that was true.
It turns out her corpse was lying in Rock Creek Park as the alleged victim of a no-name, common criminal who had a history of violence. So much for the conspiracy theories about the Washington power elite. So much for Baltimore Harbor and being sold into white slavery to Middle Eastern sheiks.
None of that was remotely true, which should make us all take a moment and reconsider the most important lesson that arose out of the Chandra Levy case, that journalism should be based on facts, not theories.
In 2006, I spoke directly with one of the lead detectives from the Washington, D.C. Metro Police Department who was assigned to the Chandra Levy case. I was intrigued when he told me they had “no interest in Gary Condit as a suspect,” and as a result, I pitched that story to several news outlets. To my surprise no one was interested in reporting it.
Maybe that’s because vindication isn’t as enticing as accusation.
The specific accusations that arose from the national media against Gary Condit were so detailed they couldn’t have been anything but pure fabrication or the result of journalists failing to properly investigate. In retrospect, some of them were totally absurd and laughable if the damage they caused to Condit’s life and career wasn’t so tragic.
Supermarket tabloid journalism has infiltrated the landscape of mainstream news convicting people by suspicion in the court of public opinion, and because people want to believe in conspiracy theories, they buy into them.
After all, it’s a lot more exciting to believe that a U.S. Congressman used a secret Washington underground network to have a young girl kidnapped and murdered than accept the more likely reality that she was just another victim of violent crime.
But after a nine-year investigation, U.S. prosecutors and Washington detectives are now saying that is the case. Hopefully, there will be justice for Chandra one way or another. For Gary Condit however, there isn’t much that can be done. After all, sticks and stones may break bones, but words do permanent damage.
Jeffrey Scott Shapiro is a former Washington, D.C. prosecutor and an investigative journalist who started his career with the tabloids. In 1999, he reported his tabloid editors to the FBI for criminal acts and has since been a vocal critic of their methods. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.