WASHINGTON — Last year's high-profile Chandra Levy murder trial now has its first appeal, and it has nothing to do with the man convicted of her murder.
In a fight pitting juror privacy against public curiosity, the Washington Post is appealing a judge's decision not to disclose contents of juror questionnaires. The trial judge says 12 jurors unanimously wanted the questionnaires kept secret.
"They were very concerned that ... either during the trial or after the trial that they were going to be, I don't want to use the word 'hounded,' but they were going to be investigated and people were going to try to talk to them and intrude upon their private or their working lives," D.C. Superior Court Judge Gerald I. Fisher said.
Fisher oversaw the murder trial, and its long pretrial preface, that culminated after 10 days of testimony in the Nov. 22 conviction of Salvadoran immigrant Ingmar Guandique. Guandique is scheduled to be sentenced Feb. 11 by Fisher.
The jury concluded that Guandique killed Levy on May 1, 2001, while she was walking or jogging in Washington's Rock Creek Park. Levy, a former Modesto resident, was preparing to return to California following completion of graduate studies and a Bureau of Prisons internship.
"The circumstantial evidence suggested strongly that there had been a sexual assault, that there may have been either torture or restraint," Fisher noted. "And it was a fairly gruesome set of facts."
The two first-degree felony murder convictions subject Guandique to potential sentences of 30 years to life in prison, as the District of Columbia does not authorize the death penalty.
Guandique's defense attorneys will have up to 30 days to appeal after his sentencing. Any such challenge would be heard by a three-judge panel of the District of Columbia Court of Appeals, the same court that will consider the Washington Post's appeal of the juror questionnaire issue.
The 11-page questionnaires were used to screen the 12 jurors and four alternates who ultimately were selected to sit through the Levy trial. In part, the questionnaires were prompted by what Fisher termed the "enormous amount of publicity about this case." This public attention resulted from revelations that Levy had been engaged in a sexual affair with then-congressman Gary Condit.
Condit testified during the trial, but he refused to acknowledge the affair. Prosecutors stated the affair as a proven fact.
"Getting to the issue of what the jurors knew about this case, or didn't know, and their thinking based upon that was of particular concern to us," Fisher stated.
Fisher explained his reasoning in a Nov. 24 hearing, the transcript of which was included in the Washington Post's quietly filed Dec. 23 appeal. Fisher further stated that he did not want to renege on his promise to jurors that the questionnaires would remain secret.
"I believe that the First Amendment requires that the court look for less restrictive means than blanket withholding of information," the Post's attorney, Patrick J. Carome, retorted during the hearing, the transcript shows.
Carome added that "the privacy issues can be addressed by withholding the particular information that was so sensitive that there was a privacy interest that trumps the First Amendment interest in access."
As part of a related fight over trial access, Chandra Levy's mother, Susan, is seeking to keep certain visually and emotionally disturbing evidence sealed so it doesn't become public.