'Miracle' conviction or one more mistake?
It is hard to imagine a more hollow and unsatisfying conviction than that of Ingmar Guandique. Twice in 10 years, law enforcement has been hijacked by sensation.
Immediately after Chandra Levy’s disappearance, police ignored even the most basic principles of investigation and evidence preservation in favor of allowing themselves to be hypnotized by a sex scandal that turned out to be irrelevant. Years later, Post reporters exposed the negligent investigation and generated the theory of Mr. Guandique’s involvement. Law enforcement was entranced once more in search of the public illusion of solving the crime and vindicating its negligent investigation. Ironically, the shoddy investigation simultaneously left Guandique with little physical evidence with which to defend himself and invited prosecution based on the most dubious and desperate form of “evidence” — the testimony of Guandique’s cellmate, who was the linchpin of the prosecution’s case.
The fact that there was so little evidence that Guandique was responsible for Levy’s death may have been one reason that U.S. Attorney Amanda Haines and Levy’s mother called the verdict a “miracle.”
Largely due to the work of Innocence Projects, society now accepts that “miracles” like Guandique’s conviction often turn out to be cases of wrongful conviction. These cases routinely feature the same issues that appeared in Guandique’s case — a botched police investigation, prosecutorial tunnel vision, reliance on jailhouse informants and, perhaps, jurors who feel they owe a conviction to the victim or his or her family.
Last week’s coverage of the verdict in Guandique’s case illustrates the role the press also plays in propping up such irresponsible prosecutions: “Without any forensic evidence, prosecutors based their case on two primary pillars.” But there was forensic evidence — trace DNA from an unknown male discovered on a piece of Levy’s clothing — just none that supported the prosecution theory that Guandique is guilty. And the “pillars”? Those would be the five-time convicted felon and the use of other crimes with dissimilar motives to suggest that Guandique committed this one. In fact, there are no pillars in this house of cards.
It is shameful that the conviction of Guandique might, as The Post story stated, solidify Haines’s place as a top prosecutor in the U.S. attorney’s office. As a prosecutor, Haines has a responsibility beyond getting convictions; she is charged with seeking justice. One of the many painful truths of the Levy murder is that, due to the initial and pervasive incompetence of law enforcement, we may never know how she died or who was involved.
The U.S. attorney’s office should not have prosecuted Guandique or invited a jury to convict him without first developing real evidence of guilt, particularly given law enforcement’s responsibility for destroying or failing to collect all the evidence.
The courtroom is no place for “miracles.” In the future, the DNA found on Chandra Levy’s clothing — determined not to have come from Guandique — may provide actual evidence that another perpetrator committed these crimes. Last week’s “miracle” conviction, however, will prove a formidable obstacle in following that evidence to the truth. In the meantime, prosecutors spent a lot of taxpayer dollars to obtain a conviction in which no one should have much confidence.
The authors direct the Innocence Project at University of Virginia School of Law.
Deirdre M. Enright and Matthew L. Engle, Charlottesville
| November 27, 2010; 6:06 PM ET
Categories: D.C., crime
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