Politics & Government

Supreme Court case could affect Chandra Levy slaying trial

WASHINGTON — The case against the man accused of killing former intern Chandra Levy could now turn on a pending Supreme Court decision about police interrogations.

In a remarkable coincidence, the nation's highest court is weighing a constitutional question that bears directly on how detectives questioned accused murderer Ingmar Guandique. The court's eventual ruling could either bolster or undermine prosecutors.

The parallel issue in both cases is whether police can come back and interrogate a prisoner several years after the inmate had invoked a constitutional right to stay silent without an attorney present.

"This very issue is currently under consideration by the Supreme Court," Assistant U.S. Attorney Fernando Campoamor noted in a new legal filing.

The Supreme Court case is called Maryland v. Shatzer, and it will be decided by June. Guandique's trial is scheduled to start Oct. 4.

Guandique is charged with killing Levy in Washington's Rock Creek Park during an attempted sexual assault and robbery. Raised in Modesto, where her parents still live, Levy had completed graduate studies and a federal Bureau of Prisons internship when she was murdered May 1, 2001.

Legal maneuvering underway now will shape how the trial proceeds. One major conflict revolves around a Sept. 9, 2008 meeting between Guandique and three Washington detectives.

The detectives had traveled to U.S. Penitentiary Victorville in Southern California, where Guandique was serving a 10-year sentence on unrelated charges. The detectives took a DNA cheek swab from Guandique. The two-hour afternoon meeting also yielded insights that prosecutors consider useful and that defense attorneys want to suppress.

New legal filings reveal how both sides may have been bluffing a bit. Detectives, for instance, advised Guandique that they had DNA evidence from the investigation, which they expected to match his DNA.

"When the detectives asked him again why his DNA would end up on the evidence recovered, Guandique said, 'So what if I touched her,'" the prosecutors' Dec. 14 filing recounts.

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

Other information from the Sept. 9 prison meeting was primarily impressionistic.

Detectives, for instance, asked Guandique through an interpreter about "a very large tattoo of a naked woman that he has on the front of his torso, which is drawn with long black hair — just as Ms. Levy had when she was murdered."

"The detectives asked him if that was a souvenir to remind him of Ms. Levy's murder, " the Dec. 14 filing recounts. "Guandique simply smirked and then giggled, but offered no denial."

Guandique's attorneys want the judge to suppress evidence from the Sept. 9 meeting. In part, they argue that detectives violated Guandique's so-called Miranda rights to remain silent until his attorney was present.

In May 2002, the day after Levy's skeletal remains were discovered, public defender Santha Sonenberg had invoked Guandique's Miranda rights.

The question now is: Did the May 2002 Miranda invocation still apply six years later for the September 2008 police questioning? Prosecutors argue the long delay meant the Miranda shield had been lowered, and say Guandique could have walked out of the 2008 prison interview any time he wanted.

This closely resembles the facts in Maryland v. Shatzer, argued in October.

Michael Shatzer was an accused child molester, who invoked Miranda rights in 2003 but then spoke to police in 2006. Like Guandique, Shatzer had been incarcerated in the meantime on other charges.

Prosecutors say the passage of time was a "break in custody," and that the second questioning was not a "custodial interrogation" for which the Miranda rules apply. Skeptics, though, fear inmates might still feel coerced.

"He doesn't have the freedom to leave and he doesn't have the freedom necessarily to make calls to discuss his choice with anyone," Justice Sonia Sotomayor noted during oral argument.

Justice John Paul Stevens likewise added that if the inmate being questioned "is in the room with two or three people around in a different setting, then he is still in custody."

But prosecution-friendly questioning by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito suggested the final Maryland v. Shatzer ruling — and its subsequent significance for Ingmar Guandique's trial — could be a close call.