Bigger Story Trumps Condit Again

The murder trial of Chandra Levy started last week.

But the first trial wrapped up years ago. Fair or not.

That's the case where reporters tried former-Rep. Gary Condit (D-CA) in the press.

Police never charged Condit in Levy's disappearance. But that didn't stop reporters from making him the target of their scrutiny in the summer of 2001.

The media trial lasted months. It started in early May, 2001 right as Levy went missing.

There was no body to be found? Where was Chandra?

Then the story exploded as word surfaced that Condit may have had an affair with Levy. She was a 24-year-old Bureau of Prisons intern who was photographed with Condit. He was a veteran, married Congressman nearly 30 years her senior.

It doesn't get any better than that in Washington. The story gripped the nation's capital. And soon the globe.

Reporters from around the world streamed into Washington to join the chase. Coverage of Condit trumped nearly every other topic on Capitol Hill. Stories about appropriations bills and education policy were afterthoughts. The case transfixed everyone. One Congressional aide likened the situation to the OJ Simpson case arriving on Capitol Hill

Media court was in session. It was all Condit, all the time.

The media trial dashed through June and July and August. Reporters and photographers staked-out Condit's apartment in the Washington, DC neighborhood of Adams-Morgan. They stalked him through the halls of Congress, into the House Agriculture Committee hearing room and down to an obscure entrance to the House gym. Condit barely uttered a word as scribes barked questions at him as he walked to the House chamber to vote. Reporters rifled through garbage cans in the Washington suburbs after police suggested someone saw Condit throw away a gift he received from another woman.

The media trial intensified as Condit refused to answer direct questions about Levy during a prime-time interview with ABC's Connie Chung.

Police may not have had a suspect at the time. But the media sure did. And the media trial spiraled way out of control with no end in sight.

Until it came to a screeching halt.

On September 11, 2001.

It's often said that 9-11 changed everything.

It certainly did for Gary Condit.

The constant media surveillance ceased overnight. Reporting on the case diminished to a trickle, trumped by perhaps the most seminal news event since the Kennedy assassination.

Today in Washington, the names "Gary Condit" and "Chandra Levy" are just echoes from a bygone time. Pages ripped from a Capitol Hill scrapbook, buried under the September 11th news avalanche. When news about the case merits, reporters excavate Condit and Levy every few years and they appear like phantasms from a past life.

Such was the case when a man looking for turtles discovered Levy's remains in Washington's wooded Rock Creek Park in 2002. Or when police arrested Salvadorian immigrant Ingmar Guandique as the suspect last year. Or when Guandique was indicted and went to trial.Condit's name returned to a muted spotlight as the trial began last week. Condit wasn't called to testify. But legacy of the former Congressman's relationship with Levy was certainly an apparition in the courtroom. "He was having an affair with Chandra Levy," declared Assistant U.S. Attorney Amanda Haines in court, but noting that the tryst had "nothing to do with the murder of Chandra Levy."

Washington, DC Police Detective-Sergeant Ronald Wyatt testified that Condit "denied" he was having an affair with Levy when questioned by authorities in July, 2001.

Condit later admitted he was having an affair. Levy disappeared on April, 30, 2001 after cancelling her membership to a Washington gym. Prosecutors believe Guandique attacked her the next day as she jogged in Rock Creek Park.

There's no physical or DNA evidence to link Guandique to the murder. He allegedly confessed to killing Levy while in jail facing other charges. There are some skin cells on Levy's jogging tights that don't belong to her, Guandique or Condit.

Prosecutors say they could call Condit to testify in the murder trial. And nearly a decade after Levy's disappearance, the reporters who are tracking the case are only there to see if and when Condit is summoned to appear.

Will the media frenzy return? Will the tabloids descend again on Washington, hounding Condit to and from the courtroom? Will people be as interested in what an otherwise, obscure, former-Congressman has to say about his indiscretions nine years after the fact? Does the public care about the potential for lurid disclosures, detailing the nature of the affair between Condit and Levy?

Chances are, the media trial is off.

Washington's focus is trained on the most-pivotal midterm election in 16 years. Republicans are riding what could be an historic electoral wave. The press is obsessed with House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH), the future of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and the percolating contretemps between President Obama and the possibility of a Republican House. Reporters speculate about the firebrand conservatives about to descend on the Capitol.Anything Condit says or does is a footnote. And the outcome of Guandique's trial won't consume much news bandwidth.

Oh, there will be some coverage of Condit to be sure. From the stand, Condit could reveal fascinating information about his liaisons with Levy. His testimony may even shed light on the final days and hours of Levy's life.

But any media attention will pale to the 2001 press chase.

There's a bigger drama playing out on Capitol Hill now.

Just like on 9-11. Trumped by a bigger news story once again.