Court records raise questions about Chandra Levy murder trial

 

McClatchy Washington Bureau

Fresno, Calif., police detectives wanted help with an unsolved crime or two.

Now, their simple queries may have unexpectedly started unraveling the case against the man convicted of killing Chandra Levy.

In previously sealed court documents, made public this week, investigators illuminate more fully the dark, backstage drama that’s roiled the Levy murder mystery. Already, defense attorneys say they will demand a retrial for Ingmar Guandique, the man convicted in November 2010 of killing Levy.

The reasonable doubt arises, defense attorneys say, because of newfound evidence that could undermine the credibility of former Fresno gang member Armando Morales, the key prosecution witness against Guandique. That evidence, the newly available documents show, came to light as an inadvertent byproduct of an unrelated Fresno investigation.

“We think this really undercuts, directly undercuts, a key pillar of Mr. Morales’ testimony,” defense attorney Jonathan W. Anderson said at a Dec. 12, 2012, hearing, according to a previously sealed transcript.

A jury concluded Guandique killed the 24-year-old Levy on May 1, 2001, in Washington’s Rock Creek Park, shortly before the former Bureau of Prisons intern was to return to her Modesto, Calif., home. Guandique is now serving a 60-year sentence.

Morales, the newly public documents suggest, has been in danger since testifying that Guandique had confessed to him while they were cellmates. The subsequent hearings and documents have been mostly sealed until now to protect Morales and some of his family members.

Morales’s own brother “denounced the witness and made it known in the gang community that the witness should not have ‘snitched,’ ” prosecutors said in a previously sealed December 2012 court filing. Family members have been pointedly reminded that “they are related to the witness and that the witness is a ‘snitch,’ ” and that other members of Morales’ former gang, the Fresno Bulldogs, will eventually be released from prison, the prosecutors added.

The core of Morales’ alleged credibility problem is the post-trial discovery that he had previously cooperated with law enforcement. This revelation was at odds with his 2010 testimony, when he presented himself as a man unaccustomed to snitching.

The newly unsealed court documents show that the Washington, D.C.-based prosecutors first learned about Morales’ previous record of cooperation by chance, when they were contacted early last year by Fresno Police Department detectives and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Fresno. The Fresno investigators wanted to know where Morales was imprisoned so they could talk to him about some past crimes.

“Through a conference call with (Fresno) detectives . . . we learned that the (Fresno department) was attempting to locate Mr. Morales because it had recently discovered transcripts of two interviews that the Fresno County Sheriff’s Department had conducted of Mr. Morales in June 1998,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Fernando Campoamor-Sanchez recounted in a previously sealed Nov. 21, 2012, letter.

The discovery stunned D.C.-based prosecutors, who had not known about the Fresno deputies’ 1998 debriefing of Morales, which included seven telephone calls and an in-person interview. The prosecutors then spent many months trying to investigate further before they contacted a trial judge late last year.

Eventually, D.C. Superior Court Judge Gerald I. Fisher may have to decide legal questions, like whether the D.C.-based prosecutors should have known, and shared with the defense, Fresno-based details about Morales’s past cooperation. The D.C.-based prosecutors argue that their Fresno counterparts were not part of the D.C. trial team.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys alike also have to sort through what they know about Morales. He can be a man of many parts, the newly available records suggest.

He can certainly be dangerous. Morales acknowledged being an “aider and abettor, if his version is to be believed” of one homicide, according to a previously sealed Feb. 6 defense filing. Morales further “provided the name of the alleged triggerman,” the filing stated.

Morales also knows how to protect his interests, as when he was seemingly negotiating with two Fresno County Sheriff’s Department detectives in 1998 over what he knew about three homicides. At the time, Morales was an inmate at U.S. Penitentiary Atlanta.

“I want you to bring me something on paper saying that you’re not gonna go and charge me with any of these crimes,” Morales said, according to a partially unsealed transcript.

Asked about information he had supposedly told an FBI agent, the streetwise Morales further acknowledged that “I was fishing him; I was trying to pull him, right?”

But Morales did not receive any sentence reduction or other benefit as a result of his testifying against Guandique, nor as a result of his prior law enforcement discussions, prosecutors note.

Morales can also be sensitive to family, as when he explained why he provided a 14-page handwritten statement to a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agent when he was arrested in Fresno in 1996.

“According to the ATF agent . . . Mr. Morales agreed to provide the statement because the agent did not handcuff Mr. Morales in front of his child at the time of arrest,” Campoamor-Sanchez explained in a previously sealed letter.

Email: mdoyle@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @MichaelDoyle10

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