Prosecutors acknowledged Monday that police made a huge mistake nearly a decade ago when they focused on then-Congressman Gary Condit in the disappearance of Washington intern Chandra Levy, but they told a jury they now have the right man.
Ingmar Guandique, a native of El Salvador, is charged with the attempted sexual assault, kidnapping and murder of Levy in the city's Rock Creek Park in May 2001. Levy was romantically linked to Condit, and the California Democrat was once a suspect. Police no longer believe he had anything to do with Levy's death.
In her opening statement, prosecutor Amanda Haines told the jury that "law enforcement really let Miss Levy and her family down. They veered in the wrong direction because of the media and sensationalism."
She said Condit tried to keep his affair with Levy a secret, and that led investigators to assume he was the prime suspect and "allowed Mr. Guandique to hide in plain sight."
A spokesman for Condit said the former congressman expects to testify.
Haines said Condit was reluctant to publicly acknowledge the affair.
"He tried -- and will try to -- keep it a secret," she said, "but it had nothing to do with her murder."
Haines also acknowledged that prosecutors have no physical evidence or eyewitnesses, but said Guandique confessed the murder to prison cellmates, and that Levy's death fits the pattern of other attacks he made on young women in Rock Creek Park in the spring and summer of 2001. He was serving 10 years in prison for those attacks when he was charged in the Levy case.
"This is not an easy case," Haines said. "It's made up of bits and pieces that are going to come together."
Jurors heard from one of the two women assaulted by Guandique. Halle Shilling, then a graduate student, testified that Guandique followed her on a secluded jogging trail and jumped her from behind. She escaped when she remembered being taught in self-defense class.
"I shoved my hand into his mouth and clenched and squeezed as hard as I could. I locked my hand and didn't let go," Shilling said, fighting back tears.
Guandique bit her hand and then ran off.
The encounter left her "as afraid and as alone as I ever felt in my entire life," Shilling said.
Guandique listened to testimony translated into Spanish on headphones. He wore a sweater vest and a cream-colored turtleneck shirt, covering gang tattoos on his neck.
Defense attorney Maria Hawilo scoffed at the prosecution's case and said Guandique has been made a scapegoat. She said DNA evidence found on Levy's jogging tights in Rock Creek Park did not come from Levy, Guandique or Condit. Prosecutors have said that DNA is likely a result of contamination in the evidence handling process.
"The police failed and fumbled this investigation," Hawilo said. "They can't fix their failure. They can't undo their mistakes. ... They have turned him into an easy scapegoat."
The jailhouse informants, Hawilo said, all have reason to lie, and the purported confessions vary widely in their detail.
Hawilo did not mention Condit at all in her opening statement.
Prosecutors did not charge Guandique in the Levy case until last year, even though his name had come up in the levy investigation as early as 2002.