Gag order placed on attorneys in Chandra Levy murder trial

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 27, 2010 

WASHINGTON — A judge on Monday imposed a gag order on attorneys involved in the trial of the man accused of killing former Modesto resident Chandra Levy.

Citing the high visibility of a case that once was a tabloid sensation, District of Columbia Superior Court Judge Gerald I. Fisher directed prosecutors and defense attorneys not to discuss with reporters the trial that's now scheduled to start Oct. 18.

"I don't want what is likely to be a (high-profile) trial to have additional problems," Fisher said during a pretrial motions hearing, adding that "we won't have to worry about inappropriate information being out there in the media."

With half a dozen reporters in attendance, Fisher imposed the gag order under a D.C. rule governing "widely publicized or sensational" cases. The same Rule 53 could potentially allow Fisher to impose other special orders governing the trial.

Gag orders are not unheard of but also do not appear to be particularly common in Washington's Superior Court cases, even when the underlying crimes have achieved some notoriety.

Following a private bench meeting with attorneys, Fisher also rescheduled the trial to begin Monday, Oct. 18, instead of the previously scheduled start date of Monday, Oct. 4. No further explanation was given for the two-week trial delay.

Prosecutors say Salvadoran immigrant Ingmar Guandique attempted to sexually assault Levy in Washington's Rock Creek Park and then killed her on May 1, 2001. At the time, Levy had finished her Bureau of Prisons internship and graduate studies and was reportedly planning to return to California.

Levy's disappearance attracted national notoriety following revelations that she'd been involved in a relationship with Modesto's then-congressman, Gary Condit. The scandal eventually cost Condit his House seat.

On Monday, as they have over the past several months, prosecutors and defense attorneys wrangled over what evidence might be presented in a trial that's expected to last up to five weeks. Each side had mixed success.

Prosecutors, for instance, won the right to mention during trial Guandique's claim that he was a member of the feared Salvadoran gang called MS-13. His defense attorneys said these claims would prejudice jurors against him, but Fisher agreed with prosecutors that it might be relevant information in explaining why Guandique allegedly spoke of his crimes to fellow inmates.

"He's very concerned about how the gang will view him," Assistant U.S. Attorney Amanda Haines said, adding that "he confesses to certain individuals because they are gang members."

Prosecutors say Guandique confessed to multiple inmates that he killed Levy, although the details in his confessions vary.

As part of their case, prosecutors also want to show a photograph of several Guandique tattoos, including one that Haines said "apparently has some reference to Miss Levy."

Haines agreed, though, that some details about Guandique's alleged statements to other inmates will not be presented during direct trial testimony — including the claim that Guandique was raping one of his fellow inmates while describing what he did to Levy.

"He generally likes to tie women up, cut them and sodomize them," Haines said.

One of Guandique's public defenders, Maria Hawilo, countered that "there is no direct evidence" that Levy was raped. Levy's skeletal remains were found in the woods about a year after she disappeared.

Fisher said prosecutors could not present statements in which Guandique allegedly asserted he would try to escape if detectives came to his prison cell to arrest him in the Levy case.

McClatchy Newspapers 2010

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