Courts & Crime

Jury selection begins in Chandra Levy case

WASHINGTON — Jury selection began Monday in the long-awaited trial of the man accused of killing former Modesto resident Chandra Levy.

By day’s end, 33 potential jurors had been eliminated for reasons that ranged from the intimate to the mundane. The winnowing process will become public again Wednesday, approximately nine-and-a-half years after Levy’s disappearance shattered a family and wrecked a political career.

Two questionnaires and follow-up queries from a judge Monday were designed to identify individuals suitable for deciding whether accused killer Ingmar Guandique will spend the rest of his life in prison. Attorneys will take over the questioning Wednesday.

“This case has received significant media coverage in the District of Columbia, and nationally as well,” D.C. Superior Court Judge Gerald I. Fisher told potential jurors.

The media storm continued Monday, as a dozen journalists showed up for an otherwise routine hearing that attorneys call voir dire. Opening statements are not expected until at least Thursday.

Much of the initial media attention arose from revelations that Levy had been having a covert affair with then-Congressman Gary Condit. On Monday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Fernando Campoamor-Sanchez identified Condit as someone jurors may hear “from or about” during a trial expected to last about five weeks.

"I expect Mr. Condit to be called to testify," the former congressman's representative, well-known Los Angeles attorney Bert Fields, said in an e-mail Monday. "If so, he will testify and cooperate fully, as he has from the beginning."

Prosecutors say Guandique killed Levy on May 1, 2001 amidst an attempted sexual assault in Washington’s Rock Creek Park. The 24-year-old Levy had finished a Bureau of Prisons internship and graduate studies and was reportedly preparing to return to California.

Guandique, who is now 29, is an illegal immigrant from El Salvador currently serving time for two attempted robberies in Rock Creek Park. The victims in those robberies are expected to testify.

On Monday, exposed for the first time to a potential jury, Guandique wore an olive-colored jacket instead of his standard orange jail jumpsuit. Guandique also wore a turtleneck sweater, covering his neck tattoos. His attorneys had presented a written order to the D.C. Jail to ensure Guandique was cleanly shaven.

“Buenos dias,” Guandique told potential jurors in the morning, after his defense attorneys had introduced themselves.

In the afternoon, Guandique likewise offered a salutation in Spanish.

Fisher dismissed potential jurors for several reasons. One man was let go after he described how he was the victim of a home invasion robbery. Another man was dismissed because his wife was mugged Sunday night. A police volunteer was dismissed because she has already formed firm opinions about the case.

“Mr. Guandique is guilty,” the woman declared.

Another man was dismissed after he noted that, among other things, his “previous apartment was a couple of blocks from Gary Condit’s apartment, and I remember the media firestorm.”

Reporters listened to the questioning in a separate room.

Some of the 55 questions asked of potential jurors concerned attitudes toward “people with extensive or unusual tattoos.” This could protect both prosecution and defense, as prosecutors intend to summon several gang-affiliated prison informants.

The snitches will reportedly testify that Guandique told them he had attacked Levy, though the details of his various accounts differ. No DNA evidence links Gandique to the crime.

Guandique’s attorneys, Santha Sonenberg and Maria Hawilo, indicated they may need as little as one day to present their defense.

Fisher opened court proceedings about 9:40 a,m, Monday. Levy’s mother Susan was not present, though she has received permission from the judge to attend the entire trial.

Prosecutors read aloud the names of about 50 potential witnesses, or others whose names might be mentioned, while defense attorneys read aloud about 20 names.

“The purpose is to select jurors who can be fair and impartial about the case,” Fisher said.

Sonenberg and Hawilo have previously raised concerns that Hispanics may be under-represented on the jury. On Monday, only about two of the 112 potential jurors in the first two panels appeared to be of Hispanic descent.

Opening statements are expected as early as Thursday, though they could be pushed back until Monday. For most of the trial, proceedings are expected to take place every day of the week except Friday.