Courts & Crime

Supreme Court ruling eases prosecution of Levy slaying suspect

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court has made it easier to successfully prosecute the man accused of killing former intern Chandra Levy.

By recently expanding police powers to interrogate certain suspects without having lawyers present, the high court eased one of the burdens confronting prosecutors in the high-profile Levy case. The justices did so without mentioning either Levy or the man accused of killing her, Ingmar Guandique.

Nonetheless, the Supreme Court's Feb. 24 ruling in Maryland v. Shatzer will likely have a direct bearing on Guandique's courtroom future. The ruling gives prosecutors potentially more opportunity to use Guandique's unmediated words and behavior against him.

"If the suspect states that he wants an attorney, the interrogation must cease until an attorney is present," Justice Antonin Scalia noted in his Maryland v. Shatzer majority opinion. "Critically, however, a suspect can waive these rights."

Explicitly, citing the passage of time, the Supreme Court ruled that convicted child molester Michael B. Shatzer waived his so-called Miranda rights by talking to police even though he once said he wouldn't. Implicitly, although a trial judge hasn't yet said so, the same reasoning applies to Guandique.

It's a grim linkage for two men who presumably have never met.

Save for the Supreme Court case that now bears his name, Shatzer is little known outside of the Maryland penal system. The crime for which he was convicted — sexually abusing his 3-year-old son — was a horrific but essentially local affair.

Guandique, by contrast, has been nationally notorious since being charged with killing Levy. Raised in Modesto, where her parents still live, Levy became a household name following her 2001 disappearance. Her subsequently revealed affair with then-congressman Gary Condit incited much of the initial media attention.

But while their level of infamy differs, Guandique and Shatzer faced similar interrogation scenarios. Both will now be bound by the prosecution-friendly results of the Supreme Court's Feb. 24 decision.

Put simply, the question was whether police can return and interrogate a prisoner after the inmate had invoked a constitutional right to stay silent without an attorney present.

The Supreme Court's answer was that police can try to question a suspect again within 14 days of the initial interview attempt. In Guandique's case, police had waited about six years.

Guandique's attorneys have sought to block prosecutors from using information gained during a September 2008 meeting between Guandique and three Washington detectives. Though not proof of murder, the information hurts Guandique's cause.

"When the detectives asked him again why his DNA would end up on the evidence recovered, Guandique said, 'So what if I touched her?'" prosecutors stated in a legal filing in December.

Prosecutors have since acknowledged that no DNA samples have linked Guandique to the crime scene.

In the same 2008 meeting, detectives asked Guandique through an interpreter if a large tattoo of a long-haired, naked woman on his torso was meant to remind him of Levy's murder.

"Guandique simply smirked and then giggled, but offered no denial," the prosecution's brief stated.

The 2008 questioning occurred in a prison where Guandique was serving a sentence for attacking two women in Washington's Rock Creek Park. Police questioned Guandique without contacting the attorneys who had begun representing him in 2002.

In Shatzer's case, three years passed between the time he first invoked his Miranda rights and his re-questioning in 2006. With his lawyer absent during the 2006 interview, Shatzer implicated himself in the sexual assault of his son. His attorney subsequently argued on appeal that the initial refusal to talk should still apply.

The Supreme Court disagreed, reasoning in an essentially unanimous decision that inmates can simply change their mind about talking to police.

"His change of heart is less likely attributable to 'badgering' than it is to the fact that further deliberation in familiar surroundings has caused him to believe, rightly or wrongly, that cooperating with the investigation is in his interest, " Scalia reasoned.