WASHINGTON — Long after Chandra Levy's convicted killer was packed off to prison, his trial has become a test case for public access to courtroom proceedings.
On Tuesday, in a dispute closely kibitzed by media organizations, appellate judges sounded sympathetic to a newspaper's bid to obtain sealed juror questionnaires from the Levy trial. The judges' eventual decision will guide future Washington trials, as well.
"Those questionnaires should never have been sealed in the first place," Washington Post attorney Bruce Brown told the District of Columbia Court of Appeals during a half-hour oral argument.
Judges don't necessarily tip their hands with their questions, and one member of the three-judge appellate panel stayed largely quiet. Nonetheless, the questions and scenarios pressed by Judge Kathryn A. Oberly and Judge Stephen H. Glickman sounded aligned with Brown's arguments.
"It's a hard sell for the government," Glickman said at one point.
The Washington Post, and its media allies, want the juror questionnaires opened up to shed more light on the high-profile case of the Washington intern who disappeared more than a decade ago and later was found dead. The media organizations also want to have leverage to keep court proceedings open in future cases.
The Justice Department acknowledges that the trial judge who handled the Levy case never should have offered "blanket promises of confidentiality" to jurors, but nonetheless says reporters waited too long to ask for the questionnaires.
"The request should have been made before the questionnaires were completed," Justice Department attorney Patricia Heffernan maintained.
Sixteen media organizations, ranging from The New York Times to the Tribune Co. and the Associated Press, have joined in a friend-of-the-court brief urging the appellate court to open up the juror questionnaires. (McClatchy is not among them.)
"First and foremost, this is a right under the First Amendment," Brown argued.
Past Supreme Court rulings, including several out of a Riverside, Calif., criminal case, have underscored that jury selection proceedings are presumed to be open.
The 11-page questionnaires now in dispute were filled out by the 12 jurors and four alternates who served during the trial of Ingmar Guandique.
Last November, the jury found Guandique guilty of killing Levy, and a judge sentenced him to 60 years. The conviction followed a 10-day trial in which prosecutors alleged that the illegal Salvadoran immigrant attacked Levy on May 1, 2001, in Washington's Rock Creek Park.
At the time of her death, the 24-year-old Levy had finished graduate studies and a federal Bureau of Prisons internship and was planning to return to Modesto, Calif., where her parents still live.
Because of revelations that she'd been sexually involved with then-Rep. Gary Condit, D-Calif., Levy's disappearance sparked a media sensation at the time. Fears that the prior publicity would taint the jury pool prompted Superior Court Judge Gerald Fisher to impose a particularly strict screening procedure.
Jurors were asked, among other things, about their attitudes toward illegal immigrants and gang tattoos as well as their personal characteristics, such as age and employment status. Fisher subsequently asked the jurors about releasing the forms.
"To a person, they were very much opposed to it," Fisher explained in court last year. "They felt very uncomfortable. They were very concerned that ... they were going to be, I don't want to use the word 'hounded,' but they were going to be investigated."
Scenarios sketched out Tuesday during the oral argument included the possibility that Fisher will have to summon the 16 jurors again and determine whether they have any specific questionnaire answers that they think are too personal, before the questionnaires are made public.
Looking ahead, Brown suggested an appellate victory for the newspaper "should help future courts appreciate" the obligation to open access to juror questionnaires. After the argument, Brown said that a ruling might take three to six months.
ON THE WEB
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY:
McClatchy Newspapers 2011