Courts & Crime

Judge rejects moving trial of Chandra Levy's accused killer

WASHINGTON — A judge on Friday refused to move the trial of the man accused of killing one-time intern Chandra Levy, though he acknowledged worries that pretrial publicity could taint jurors.

"We're all rightly concerned about the trial being tried in someplace other than the courtroom," D.C. Superior Court Judge Gerald I. Fisher said.

Nonetheless, Fisher rejected efforts by defense attorneys to relocate the trial now scheduled to start Oct. 4. Fisher said he lacked "any authority" to move the case out of the federal jurisdiction of the District of Columbia.

In a day of procedural defeats for accused killer Ingmar Guandique, Fisher also rejected defense efforts to prescreen the testimony of jailhouse informants. Defense attorneys had asked for special hearings to determine how trustworthy the informants might be.

"I don't really see the basis for such a hearing," Fisher said. "The reliability of the witnesses will be tested in the cross-examination."

Prosecutors have charged Guandique with first-degree murder, attempted sexual assault and an assortment of related charges. Relying heavily on prison informants and circumstantial evidence, prosecutors say Guandique ambushed Levy on May 1, 2001, while she was jogging or hiking in Washington's wooded Rock Creek Park.

Prosecutors have also charged Guandique with several conspiracy and obstruction of justice charges, based on claims that the alleged MS-13 gang member threatened witnesses.

Raised in Modesto, where her parents still live, Levy was last seen in public April 30, 2001. At the time, she had finished a Bureau of Prisons internship in Washington and was reportedly planning to return to California.

Her disappearance drew widespread national attention following reports that she'd been romantically or sexually involved with then-congressman Gary Condit. Defense attorneys cited the media coverage in their argument for a change of venue.

One Washington television station mentioned Guandique's name 86 times between April 2009 and February 2010, defense attorneys noted. Another local television station needed 28 pages to list all of the stories it had run about the case between May 2001 and February 2010.

The attention returned during the 90-minute status hearing Tuesday afternoon, which was attended by half a dozen reporters and the co-authors of a book published May 11 called "Finding Chandra."

"It's a fascinating murder mystery, and there are aspects of it that are still mysterious," noted Washington Post reporter and "Finding Chandra" co-author Sari Horwitz. "There are online bloggers out there who still want to solve the case."

Levy's involvement with Condit drove the public attention, and this too popped back up Friday afternoon when a defense attorney was explaining the need for a questionnaire to test potential juror bias.

"Some of them may be stricken for cause if they think Gary Condit did it," public defender Santha Sonenberg said as an example of how the questionnaire might work.

Sonenberg wants to ask questions of potential jurors about issues like attitudes toward gangs and illegal immigration. A native of El Salvador, Guandique is an illegal immigrant and festooned with gang tattoos.

Fisher will be deciding later about pretrial questionnaires. He must also decide whether prosecutors can present information about other women Guandique admitted to attacking in Rock Creek Park, as well as a third encounter that occurred earlier on the day Levy died. Prosecutors say these other incidents add up to a pattern for Guandique.

"Mr. Guandique would trail his victims for miles; he was waiting for his moment," Assistant U.S. Attorney Fernando Campoamor said, adding that "Ms. Levy was either not as strong or not as lucky as these other victims."

Prosecutors indicated Friday that they expect they will need between three and four weeks to present their case.

Guandique faces life in prison if convicted, as the District of Columbia does not have the death penalty. He is currently completing a 10-year sentence on charges of attacking the two other women in Rock Creek Park.