Lawyers prepare for center stage in Chandra Levy murder trial

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 24, 2010 

WASHINGTON — Distinctly zealous advocates will now dissect the life and death of former Modesto resident Chandra Levy.

The long-awaited trial of Levy's accused killer, Ingmar Guandique, that begins Oct. 4 brings a public spotlight onto prosecutor Amanda Haines, lead defense attorney Santha Sonenberg and their respective legal partners. So far, the sides seem evenly matched.

In court hearings and documents filed over the past year, the prosecution and defense teams alike have made themselves known. Both appear aggressive and well-versed. They clash, sometime sharply, but so far they have retained a civil tone.

"Both sides come very well-prepared," former D.C.-based federal prosecutor David Schertler said Friday, "and that all makes for an excellent trial."

At the same time, the courtroom's hothouse atmosphere highlights personality differences. Sonenberg is in her early 50s. She appears buttoned-down and serious nearly all the time. Haines is in her 40s. She laughs more easily, like she's swapping jokes with the guys down in homicide.

Sonenberg's partner, Maria Hawilo, is a University of Michigan Law School graduate in her early 30s, who will sometimes turn to Sonenberg for guidance. Haines' partner, Fernando Campoamor-Sanchez, is a Duke Law School graduate who's been known to fly private planes for fun.

The other major legal presence in Courtroom 320 of the H. Carl Moultrie Courthouse is Superior Court Judge Gerald I. Fisher. A veteran of nine years on the bench, Fisher seems calm while showing flashes of dry wit, as in a recent reference to a case involving Charms Industries.

"That's 'charms,' as in what nobody has ever accused me of being," said Fisher, who at another point cited "Saturday Night Live" comedian Kevin Nealon.

Everyone will get to know each other a lot more over the next two months or so. They'll be spending four days a week, Monday through Thursday, in the courtroom where a jury will decide Guandique's fate.

Prosecutors say Guandique attempted to sexually assault Levy in Washington's Rock Creek Park on May 1, 2001. At the time, Levy had finished graduate studies and an internship and was apparently preparing to return to California.

Guandique's attorneys are part of the District of Columbia's Public Defender Service, which numbers about 232 staffers. The prosecutors work out of the nation's largest U.S. Attorney's Office, which employs some 700 lawyers and support staff.

The prosecutors are accustomed to winning. Last year, the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Columbia secured convictions in 82 percent of the homicide cases prosecuted.

A 16-year veteran of the U.S. Attorney's Office, Haines has handled some of the city's most notorious crimes, including the successful prosecution of two men who murdered New York Times reporter David Rosenbaum in 2006. She is persistent, once securing a guilty plea to solve a 12-year-old murder in which the body was never found.

Haines speaks vividly, as if already before a jury, when she describes Guandique.

"He attacked Ms. Levy in the woods," Haines said at one recent hearing. "He took her off the path. He raped her. He killed her."

Sonenberg, too, can speak bluntly, as when she characterized one interrogation ruse attempted by D.C. detectives interviewing Guandique.

"They lied to him," Sonenberg said.

Sonenberg typically sits next to Guandique, sometimes touching him on the shoulder as she makes a point. Occasionally, it seems she is showing there is nothing to fear from this man.

"She's very experienced, very talented, and she knows what to do in a courtroom," said Schertler, who saw Sonenberg in action while he was with the U.S. Attorney's Office.

Like Hawilo, Sonenberg speaks Spanish. For most trial proceedings, though, Guandique requires a translator and may not fully comprehend his attorneys' diligence.

Recently, for instance, Sonenberg and Hawilo unearthed documents from the 1940s to demonstrate that land used for U.S. Penitentiary Victorville near the Mojave Desert had been transferred from state to federal control. The punctilious research was part of an ultimately unsuccessful argument that a state judge couldn't issue a search warrant for Guandique's federal prison cell.

Fisher has already rejected a flurry of other defense motions, from a proposed change of venue to an effort to exclude jailhouse informants. The defense attorneys are still questioning the alleged under-representation of Hispanics on Washington juries. Sonenberg has made similar arguments going back to at least 1991, when she was defending a group of Hispanic drug defendants.

Intense maneuvering and occasional gamesmanship come with the turf.

Periodically, Guandique's attorneys have complained about not getting access to evidence. Haines, in turn, recently complained she was getting "blindsided" by a defense argument. Sometimes, though, even these adversaries come to a meeting of the minds.

"You're seeing something momentous here," Haines told the judge at one August hearing, amid discussion of a jury issue. "Ms. Sonenberg and I agree."

McClatchy Newspapers 2010

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