WASHINGTON — The ninth anniversary of Chandra Levy's disappearance is approaching with attorneys still fighting over where to try the man accused of her murder.
In new legal filings, attorneys for Ingmar Guandique tally the local press coverage since May 2001 and say it adds up to a tainted jury pool. They want the trial moved from Washington to some other, unspecified location.
But in the face of prosecutors' resistance to moving the trial, Guandique’s attorneys also suggest several options that include making it easier to screen potential jurors.
“The publicity surrounding this case has been far greater in the District of Columbia than in other parts of the United States,” attorneys Santha Sonenberg and Maria Hawilo noted in their April 27 filing.
If the judge refuses to move the trial, Sonenberg and Hawilo say the “tremendous and extreme publicity” can be partially counteracted by summoning a “special and significantly larger than usual” pool of potential jurors. They also want potential jurors to be given two questionnaires, instead of the usual one, and they want attorneys to be armed with more “preemptory strikes” to eliminate potential jurors.
Prosecutors and defense attorneys each get 10 preemptory strikes in standard D.C. felony trials.
The change-of-venue fight is only one of the procedural tussles now underway as attorneys prepare for an October trial date in D.C. Superior Court. The trial location back-and-forth is especially pointed, though, because of the extraordinary publicity that’s attended the Levy case since its beginning.
Levy had just turned 24 when she was last seen in public on April 30, 2001.
Prosecutors say Guandique murdered Levy on May 1, after he attempted to sexually assault her in Washington’s Rock Creek Park. At the time, Levy had finished a Bureau of Prisons internship and was apparently preparing to return to California. She was raised in Modesto, where her parents still live.
The media seized on Levy’s disappearance in the wake of revelations that she had been sexually involved with then-Rep. Gary Condit, a California Democrat. In a single two-day period in July 2001, newly released records show, the Fox-affiliated WTTG in D.C. aired 12 news items identified under the caption “Levy/Condit.”
Condit ultimately told investigators of the affair — according to published reports he does not deny — but he has steadfastly cast the relationship as a limited one.
“It wasn’t a romantic relationship,” Condit told attorneys in a September 2004 deposition, further defining a romantic relationship as “one of unusual affection, where you pay attention to people, so on and so forth.”
One Washington-area television station, WRC, “aired daily stories” on the Levy case between May and September 2001, Guandique’s attorneys note in the new legal filing. Between April 2009, when prosecutors charged Guandique, and February 2010, the station has mentioned Guandique’s name 86 times.
Another local television station, WTTG, needed 28 pages to print out every story on the Levy case that’d aired between May 10, 2001 and Feb. 20, 2010.
“Unquestionably, the frequency, concentration and depth of news coverage has been far greater in the District of Columbia,” Sonenberg and Hawilo said.
Sonenberg and Hawilo further suggest the scale of what they’re looking for, by citing a previous high-profile D.C. criminal case in which 900 potential jurors filled out questionnaires. The jury selection process alone in this earlier case took nine weeks.
Federal prosecutors, who handle cases in the District of Columbia because it is a federal jurisdiction, say there’s no need to switch trial locations. They further cite procedural objections to moving the trial to another federal jurisdiction.
“This case has received media attention all across the United States, not just D.C.” Assistant U.S. Attorneys Fernando Campoamor and Amanda Haynes noted in an earlier legal filing. “As a result, the fairness of the trial in this or any jurisdiction depends on voir dire, not the location of the trial.”