By Brad Heath and Kevin Johnson, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON - There's a new mystery in a murder case that gripped the nation's capital a decade ago.
Federal prosecutors and lawyers for the man convicted of murdering 24-year-old former congressional intern Chandra Levy have met twice since December for secret court hearings about new information that could undercut the testimony of a prosecution witness. The court has closed off the hearings to public view - on one occasion locking the courtroom doors - and has ordered that legal filings be sealed.
Whatever the problem is, it is serious enough that lawyers for the Justice Department and Ingmar Guandique, the man convicted two years ago of killing Levy, have agreed to put his appeal on hold until it is sorted out. Superior Court Judge Gerald Fisher has summoned Guandique to appear at a Feb. 7 court hearing.
Gannett, parent company of USA TODAY, and three other news organizations - the Associated Press, The Washington Post and McClatchy Co. - asked Fisher on Wednesday to unseal the records. The Levy case records should be open to public inspection under the First Amendment, the organizations' lawyer, Patrick Carome, said in a court filing.
Levy disappeared in 2001. But the mystery of what happened to her became a national spectacle when media reports said she had been having an affair with then-congressman Gary Condit of California. Condit was cleared of any involvement in her death, but he was ousted from Congress in a primary election in 2002.
Police found her remains in a Washington park in 2002. Guandique was found guilty of Levy's killing in 2010 and sentenced the next year to 60 years in prison.
Levy's parents, Robert and Susan, said they had not been briefed on the problem with the case, and weren't sure what to make of it. "Our concern is that we are without our daughter," they said. "We hope they don't let a rapist and murder out because of some technicality.''
The U.S. attorney's office in Washington - which asked that the post-trial proceedings be secret - declined to comment on the witness problem. Fisher said in a December hearing that he ordered the secrecy over "safety concerns."
Court records don't reveal what the problem is, or even which witness's testimony could have been undermined. Fisher said in December that prosecutors approached him with the information after Guandique's trial.
The government's star witness was Guandique's former cellmate, Armando Morales, who told a jury in 2010 that Guandique admitted to him that he had killed Levy. He testified that Guandique confided in him "You don't understand. ... Homeboy, I killed the (expletive), but I didn't rape her."
Washington's Public Defender Service, which represents Guandique, has also filed a notice of appeal challenging the secrecy surrounding the case. It's not the first time that secrecy has been an issue; last year, Washington's appeals court ordered Fisher to release copies of jury questionnaires, saying "the value of public trials is undisputed."