WASHINGTON – There are plenty of witnesses in the case against an imprisoned Salvadoran immigrant accused of killing former D.C. intern Chandra Levy — the ex-girlfriend who says she was beaten, other women he's convicted of attacking and a man believed to be a fellow inmate.
But none of the dozen prosecution witnesses outlined in a March 3 affidavit actually saw the attack on the young woman in a Washington park about eight years ago. Only two directly link Ingmar Guandique, who's expected to arrive in Washington in the next few weeks, to Levy's death.
Prosecutors have nailed convictions in other cases with no physical evidence and only secondhand or circumstantial witness accounts. New evidence could also emerge in the Levy case.
But without forensic evidence linking Levy and Guandique or an eyewitness account, the Levy case offers weaknesses the defense could pounce on, say several attorneys not connected to the case.
"It's long on witnesses and short on direct evidence that Guandique had anything to do with this," said David Benowitz, a criminal defense attorney who once worked as a public defender in the District of Columbia.
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The same team of prosecutors and detectives working the Levy case last year solved the 1996 D.C. slaying of Shaquita Bell, even though her body has never been found and no one saw the killing.
Michael Dickerson, her ex-boyfriend and a convicted felon, pleaded guilty in October to killing her after authorities lined up evidence from ballistics, past domestic violence and witnesses who saw the couple argue.
Thomas A. "Tad" DiBiase, a former federal prosecutor in D.C. who now runs the Web site nobodymurdercases.com, recalled many other cases in which suspects were convicted even though a body was never found and no witnesses actually saw the killing.
"You line all these things up and that ends up being quite powerful and difficult for the defense to deal with," DiBiase said.
The Levy investigation has been problematic since it started. Critics have long pointed to early missteps such as the police department's failure to find Levy's body until a year after the Modesto, Calif., resident disappeared.
Some former investigators also say police remained too focused on former U.S. Rep. Gary Condit, the California lawmaker who was reportedly romantically involved with Levy. Condit lost his bid for re-election in 2002.
Guandique is accused of sexually assaulting and killing Levy on a trail in Rock Creek Park on May 1, 2001. By the time her remains were found, they were so decomposed that valuable evidence probably was lost.
The March 3 arrest warrant and affidavit make no mention of DNA or other forensic evidence pointing to Guandique. U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Taylor said that there was no physical evidence linking Guandique to the crime, but that the "cumulative weight" of circumstantial evidence led investigators to Guandique.
Guandique has been serving a 10-year federal prison term in California for two other attacks in the same park where authorities say he attacked Levy. Federal Bureau of Prisons officials said he was moved to their federal transfer center in Oklahoma City on Thursday.
Authorities have said they don't have a date for Guandique's arrival in Washington, but they expected the U.S. Marshals Service to transfer him to D.C. within 30 to 60 days of the arrest warrant date.
Channing Phillips, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office, said a grand jury will convene to consider indicting Guandique, but he could not say when. In D.C., suspects must be indicted within nine months of being charged.
Santha Sonenberg and Maria Hawilo, Guandique's public defenders, have called authorities' investigation "flawed."
Some criminal defense attorneys say prosecutors, lacking forensic evidence and eyewitnesses, are relying too heavily on secondhand witnesses.
None of the witnesses are named, but police describe some of their identities. There's an ex-girlfriend who says they argued and that he occassionally hit, grabbed and bit her. Then there are the two women he's convicted of attacking along with another woman who was walking in the park and believes Guandique followed her around the time Levy went missing. Another witness is merely the dog-walker who discovered Levy's remains a year later.
Others include those who claim to have known Guandique for many years and those who say they've exchanged letters with him. One of the most extreme characterizations of Guandique comes from a witness who says Guandique boasted about being known as "Chuckie" because he had a reputation for killing and chopping up people.
In the affidavit, the interview with witness 11 is dated from February. That man also was present when Guandique allegedly heard a recent news report about authorities' plan to arrest him in the Levy murder. The witness claims Guandique said he was involved in her slaying and described the incident in detail. Given that Guandique was in jail at the time, it's likely that man is an inmate.
Another witness also said that Guandique admitted to killing Levy, though police say the account Guandique provided that person was "inconsistent in some respects with accounts he gave to other witnesses." The affidavit does not specify the discrepancies. Only that witness and the 11th witness connect Levy by name to Guandique.
Benowitz, the former public defender, said he would question witnesses' motivation for speaking to police and under what circumstances they were interviewed. He said that the 11th witness appears to be a "jailhouse snitch," and that the defense would need to know whether the inmate received any favors in exchange for the interview.
As for the two witnesses directly linking Guandique to Levy, the defense may question whether they could have gotten those details from published reports or other sources and not actually from Guandique, said Paul Rothstein, an evidence expert at Georgetown University's law school.
Rothstein also said it would help if authorities could get evidence to show how Levy died — evidence that would square with Guandique's alleged admissions outlined in the affidavit. And if Guandique had accomplices, as some witnesses suggest, they would need to testify, too.
"What's set forth in this affidavit, without more facts, does not seem to add up to a sound case of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, if it went to trial," Rothstein said.