Chandra Levy murder trial releasing jurors' questionnaires

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 20, 2012 

WASHINGTON — The year-old trial of Chandra Levy's killer is still revealing secrets, with an appellate court ruling that reporters can see juror questionnaires kept locked up by the judge.

In a case closely watched by media organizations, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals has concluded the Constitution compels the trial judge to make the juror questionnaires public.

"The values underlying the First Amendment right of access _ for example, the public trial as a check on the fair functioning of the criminal justice system _ are served even after the verdict is in," Associate Judge Kathryn A. Oberly wrote.

Long-term, the appellate court decision quietly issued Thursday could keep future D.C. trials more open. Short-term, the decision means the public will learn more about the 12 jurors and four alternates who sat through the 10-day trial of Ingmar Guandique in the fall of 2010.

The jury of three men and nine women ultimately found Guandique guilty of first-degree murder, concluding the illegal Salvadoran immigrant had killed Levy while she was alone in Washington's Rock Creek Park.

At the time of her death in 2001, the 24-year-old Levy was preparing to return to Modesto, Calif., where her parents still live. She had also been involved in a sexual relationship with then-Congressman Gary Condit, which drew a spotlight to her disappearance as well as to the trial.

"The coverage of her case captured the nation’s attention," Oberly noted. "Not surprisingly, then, the trial court and the parties devoted considerable discussion to the process of selecting a fair and impartial jury in Guandique’s trial."

The 20-page appellate court decision is also a marked victory for the Washington Post, which had challenged Superior Court Judge Gerald I. Fisher's initial decision not to release the juror questionnaires. More than a dozen major news organizations signed on to a friend-of-the-court brief siding with the Post.

"Those questionnaires should never have been sealed in the first place," attorney Bruce Brown, representing the Post, told the D.C. Court of Appeals during a half-hour oral argument last fall.

The unusually extensive, 11-page questionnaires asked jurors 55 questions, ranging from their attitudes toward illegal immigrants and gang tattoos to their familiarity with Rock Creek Park. Prosecutors and defense attorneys used the questionnaires during the week-long "voir dire" proceedings designed to select an impartial jury.

The questionnaires identified jurors by number, and did not include information such as names or Social Security number. Fisher released basic information on the jurors' age, gender, education level, but assured them the full documents would not be released.

"Having told the jury that, I intend to live up to that promise unless the (appellate) court tells me that I have to do otherwise," Fisher stated. Government attorneys subsequently acknowledged Fisher's blanket promise was ill-founded, but insisted the Post waited too long to challenge it.

The appellate court didn't buy this argument.

"We disagree that once the promise was made there was no going back," Oberly wrote. "The trial court could have explained to the jurors that the guarantee of confidentiality was made in error and that their questionnaires were subject to a constitutional presumption of disclosure unless they had particular privacy."

Fisher will now have to go back and figure out what specific material, if any, should be redacted before the questionnaires are released.

Guandique, too, is hoping to sway the D.C. judges. Now incarcerated in a federal prison in Florida, he filed a notice last February that he intends to appeal his conviction; so far, the substantive appeal documents have not been filed.

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ON THE WEB D.C. Court of Appeals web site

MORE FROM MCCLATCHY:

Man sentenced in Chandra Levy killing appeals his conviction

Chandra Levy's killer sentenced to 60 years in prison

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