CBSNews.com Legal Consultant Andrew Cohen analyzes legal cases in the news.
We should all agree that Wednesday was by far the worst day in the lives of Robert and Susan Levy, Chandra Levy's parents, who after all these long, uneasy, humiliating months finally learned of their daughter's awful fate from news reports while their home was surrounded by cameras and crews.
For them now, the first day of the rest of their lives presumably will be spent making funeral arrangements for their daughter and waiting for a death investigation in the nation's capital to turn into a murder investigation.
And we also may agree that it was probably inevitable that the three-word question "Where is Chandra?" would tragically but almost immediately morph upon the discovery of her remains in a Washington, D.C., park into the three-word question "Who killed Chandra?"
For months now, I reckon, law enforcement officials have presumed that Levy either had been killed or, less realistically, didn't want to be found for any number of reasons. I don't expect in the coming weeks that we will hear many law enforcement officials declare that they were surprised that her body would turn up where it did.
But if the discovery of Levy's remains represents the end of one part of this saga, it is way too early to evaluate whether Wednesday's news is merely a development in the investigation or the big break the cops have been hoping for since last May.
If it's merely a development, it will be because the remains and the spot where they were located did not reveal any significant clues about how Levy died and who may have killed her. If it's a break in the case, it will be because the forensic experts were able to glean from what they are working with some indicator of whom they ought to be looking for and why.
There have been tremendous advances in forensic science over the past decade. The technologies are a lot better and the experience now brought to bear on murder cases by seasoned, careful investigators is impressive as well. But those folks aren't miracle workers, and if you talk to them long enough they will tell you candidly that human remains left outside for a long period of time yield fewer clues than most any other kind of crime scene scenario.
As we now know, the identification of such remains isn't exactly rocket science — it took investigators just a few hours to match Levy's dental records with teeth found in the skull. But identifying Levy and answering all the questions about the way she died are two very different tasks.
Can her skull and the other bones found in Rock Creek Park tell investigators when she died with a level of specificity that gives the cops the narrow window of time they'll need to have to figure out who had the opportunity to kill her? What if all the experts can do is tell the cops that Levy died over nine months ago? That certainly won't give law enforcement a big boost.
The same is true for the manner of her death. Do the remains reveal how she died and why? If her skull was crushed I imagine it would be easy for investigators to speculate about how it all ended for Levy. But if her skull is intact, what then? All her soft tissue and organs presumably would be gone and it is even uncertain whether the spot where her remains were found would yield the remnants of her blood and bodily fluids. This isn't pretty stuff, folks, but it is precisely the sorts of questions these experts ask when they come into a case like this.
You even could argue that it may be difficult for investigators to determine where Levy died. Was she killed on the spot where her remains were found or was she killed elsewhere and then dumped in the park? If the cops came upon a warm body they'd likely answer those questions in a few hours. Now, given the passage of time and what may have happened to her body as it lay on the ground in a forested area populated by all sorts of animals, they may never be able to.
Jogging clothes apparently were found near her body. Was she simply jogging when she got attacked and killed? Or had she met someone she planned to jog with? And what does the discovery of jogging apparel mean to all the speculation surrounding California Congressman Gary Condit? Even though he has never been a formal police suspect, do the clothes rule him out once and for all as Levy's murderer? Or is the discovery of Levy's body, at least for now, a neutral factor in the Condit equation, making it no more or no less likely that he was somehow involved?
It's not all bleak. The police and the medical experts have a few things going for them. First, they found Levy's ring, which at least suggests that robbery may not have been a motive in her death. Second, they found some of her clothes, which might yield vital DNA information or even physical samples linking the remains to someone else. It is not inconceivable that a small patch of those clothes was not exposed to the elements — maybe it was folded in a certain way — and maybe Levy's killer dropped a hair or two at the scene.
We'll know fairly soon. One of two things will happen. Either the police will be very public about announcing that they need help from the public to solve the mystery, in which case we know we are dealing only with a "development" in the case, or the cops will clam up and individuals will be questioned behind-the-scenes, in which case we may suspect that there's been an actual "break" in the case, to be followed shortly by an arrest and perhaps even an indictment and trial.
The poor Levys got one form of closure Wednesday. Now they'll be waiting and hoping for the kind of closure the legal system rarely can deliver.
By Andrew Cohen