Courts & Crime

Levy slaying prosecutors opposing efforts to move trial

WASHINGTON — Prosecutors are resisting defense efforts to relocate the trial of the man accused of murdering former intern Chandra Levy.

Amid crucial pretrial maneuvering, prosecutors argue in new legal filings that accused killer Ingmar Guandique should be held to account in the nation's capital. Potentially biased jurors can be excluded through the questioning process known as voir dire, prosecutors say.

"This case has received media attention all across the United States, not just D.C.," the prosecutors argue in their latest brief. "As a result, the fairness of the trial in this or any jurisdiction depends upon voir dire, not the location of the trial."

Prosecutors say Guandique attempted to sexually assault Levy and then murdered her in Washington's Rock Creek Park on May 2001, while the one-time Modesto resident was jogging on a remote trail. Levy's skeletal remains were found a year later.

The prosecutors' arguments, in legal pleadings filed March 9, tee up one of the most important decisions to be made by Superior Court Judge Gerald Fisher. Guandique's attorneys argued previously that the trial must move because of the case's "extremely sensational" media coverage.

"Given the pervasiveness of modern communications and the difficulty of effacing prejudicial publicity from the minds of jurors, trial courts must take strong measures to ensure that the balance is never weighed against the accused," Guandique's attorneys argued in earlier legal filings.

Guandique's attorneys, Santha Sonenberg and Maria Hawilo, cited among many other stories a lengthy Washington Post series that ran in July 2008. An expanded version of the Levy series will soon appear as a book by reporters Sari Horwitz and Scott Higham. One D.C.-area television station had run "thousands and thousands of stories on the case," the attorneys added.

Much of the original coverage arose from speculation, and then revelations, about Levy's relationship with then-Rep. Gary Condit. The publicity spurred the flameout of Condit's congressional career in 2002. Some critics also believe it distracted police early in the investigation.

Guandique faces life in prison if convicted on first-degree murder charges, as the District of Columbia lacks the death penalty. Though he is being tried in a superior court, it is a federal jurisdiction, and the prosecutors are members of the U.S. Attorneys Office

His defense attorneys want the trial moved to an unspecified federal court elsewhere.

While acknowledging that "publicity surrounding the murder of Chandra Levy has been extensive," Assistant U.S. Attorneys Amanda Haynes and Fernando Campoamor-Sanchez contend that alone isn't enough to compel a new trial location. They note numerous other high-profile cases have safely occurred in Washington.

"The strong presumption must be that, in any case, jurors can be found in the District of Columbia whose exposure to the case will have been sufficiently minimal to enable them to render a fair and impartial verdict," the prosecutors argue.

Prosecutors also note that, in earlier cases, the D.C. Court of Appeals has concluded that changes of venue aren't allowed because of the unique character of the D.C. Superior Court.

A change of venue typically moves a trial from a superior court in one part of a state to another, as when the sensational 2004 murder trial of Scott Peterson was moved from Modesto to Redwood City. By contrast, there is no other superior court comparable to the District of Columbia's; it's one of a kind.

Prosecutors added that "citizens in the District of Columbia have been contacted and asked a number of questions regarding the criminal justice system in general and the murder of Chandra Levy in particular." Prosecutors say they don't yet know if this was being done by the defense team; perhaps, to provide further evidence for the change-of-venue request.