Man sentenced in Chandra Levy killing appeals his conviction

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 1, 2011 

WASHINGTON — The man sentenced to 60 years in prison for killing one-time intern Chandra Levy is now appealing his conviction with the help of a Harvard Law School graduate.

In new filings, attorneys for illegal Salvadoran immigrant Ingmar Guandique say he deserves a new trial. Though it could be a long shot, the appeal stretches out the final, final resolution of a long-running criminal case now about to enter its second decade.

The challenge filed with the District of Columbia Court of Appeals also continues a theme of zealous advocacy by Guandique's publicly funded attorneys.

"There should be a new trial," defense attorney Santha Sonenberg told D.C. Superior Court Judge Gerald I. Fisher in a foreshadowing moment in February.

Fisher oversaw last November's trial, in which a jury concluded Guandique killed the 24-year-old Levy on May 1, 2001. At the time, Levy was preparing to travel to Modesto, Calif., where her parents Robert and Susan still live.

Sonenberg and her colleague, Maria Hawilo, had previously petitioned Fisher for a new trial, citing the kinds of issues that may now confront the appellate court. The Public Defender Service attorneys contend that a federal prosecutor went too far in her closing arguments, and that jurors improperly shared notes with each other.

"The government's closing argument was replete with appeals to the jury's emotions, and references to facts not in evidence," Sonenberg and Hawilo declared in an earlier post-trial filing.

Fisher acknowledged that there were "portions" of Assistant U.S. Attorney Amanda Haines' closing argument that may have crossed a line, but he rejected the claim that a new trial was required.

"I don't think this was a weak case," Fisher said, shortly before handing down Guandique's sentence. "There was pretty compelling evidence…that was highly persuasive."

The formal notice of appeal was quietly filed Feb. 25. It was signed by James Klein, a Harvard College and Harvard Law School graduate who heads the Public Defenders Service's appellate division. The preliminary appeal documents publicly accessible Tuesday were limited to background material from the original trial.

The nine-member D.C Court of Appeals is located across the street from the D.C. Superior Court, although its hushed and solemn atmosphere is markedly different from the streetwise hubbub at Superior Court.

Previously incarcerated at U.S. Penitentiary Victorville, near California's Mojave Desert, Guandique will have to wait for his appeal to proceed. The average appeal now takes 588 days to resolve, according to the D.C. Court of Appeals' most recent annual report.

Guandique's is one of roughly 1,700 criminal appeals submitted to the court each year, about 700 of them from criminal convictions. So far, a review of court records suggests that Fisher does well with the appellate judges.

Last June, for instance, the appellate court upheld Fisher's dismissal of a case involving a window-cleaning contract at the Washington Convention Center. Similarly, last April, an appellate panel upheld Fisher's decision rejecting claims from an AIDS patient who said she was defrauded.

In a hint of how long Guandique's appeal may linger, the April 2010 decision upholding Fisher's action was handed down 22 months after oral arguments. On the other hand, the appellate panel in another decision last April took only two months to uphold Fisher's rulings in a case involving the search of a cocaine dealer's car.

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