Politics & Government

Citing publicity, defense seeks to move Chandra Levy trial

WASHINGTON — Attorneys for the man accused of killing former intern Chandra Levy now want the trial transferred out of the nation's capital.

Citing "extremely sensational" news coverage, attorneys representing Salvadoran immigrant Ingmar Guandique say the upcoming trial should be moved to a distant federal court. Their argument isn't unexpected, but it does pose some novel legal questions.

"Some local television stations have so much footage regarding the disappearance of Chandra Levy, and the subsequent charging of Ingmar Guandique, that it would take weeks, if not months, for them to pull the voluminous amount of archived tape regarding this case," Guandique's attorneys say in their latest legal filing.

Guandique's attorneys, Santha Sonenberg and Maria Hawilo, contend that the extensive reporting that's taken place since Levy's 2001 disappearance will have irrevocably tainted potential Washington-area jurors.

Sonenberg and Hawilo cited a 12-part Washington Post series on the case, which ran in July 2008, as well as one Washington-area television station that had "thousands and thousands of stories on the case." The attorneys further said that the Post's series by reporters Sari Horwitz and Scott Higham was about to become the third book published on Levy's killing, which was also the subject of more than one Internet site.

"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," the attorneys said, citing a 1966 Supreme Court case.

The 1966 case involved a circus-like atmosphere surrounding the prosecution of Ohio physician Sam Sheppard in connection with the bludgeoning death of his pregnant wife. Citing a blend of "murder and mystery, society, sex and suspense," the Supreme Court ruled that Sheppard hadn't received a fair trial.

Prosecutors haven't yet formally responded to Friday's court filing by Guandique's attorneys, which became publicly available late Tuesday. As a general matter, citing cost and efficiency concerns, prosecutors often resist change-of-venue requests.

Defense attorneys, though, consider changing venues as a standard cure for pretrial publicity. The successful 2004 murder prosecution of Scott Peterson for the killing of Laci Peterson, for instance, was moved from the Petersons' hometown of Modesto, Calif., to the San Francisco Bay Area because of extensive publicity.

Peterson's attorney was Mark Geragos. By coincidence, Geragos also has served as attorney for Democratic former U.S. Rep. Gary Condit of California, whose affair with Levy made the intern's disappearance so alluring to the news media.

Condit doesn't deny published reports that he told police investigators in 2001 that he had a relationship with the much-younger Levy, though in public he dismisses use of the adjective "romantic."

He's been working with a collaborator to write his own book, according to individuals who are familiar with his current work.

Guandique's attorneys face several hurdles in their effort to move the trial, currently scheduled to start Oct. 4.

In addition to potential resistance from prosecutors, rules in the District of Columbia Superior Court appear to block change-of-venue requests. Based in a federal jurisdiction but responsible for local cases, the D.C. Superior Court has been considered different from superior courts that are in states.

"A change of venue is not an option in the District," the District of Columbia Court of Appeals concluded in a 1981 case.

Nonetheless, Guandique's defense attorneys hope to convince a judge that the constitutional guarantee of a fair trial trumps Washington's apparent ban on a change of venue.

An evidentiary hearing will be necessary to attempt to show that the weight of pretrial publicity makes a fair trial in Washington impossible.


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