Chandra Levy judge maintains veil of secrecy over hearings

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 6, 2013 

— The ongoing Chandra Levy murder mystery rekindled news media attention Wednesday, as a trial judge told a crowded courtroom that unexpected post-trial proceedings will remain secret for now.

Rejecting the pleas of defense attorneys, as well as an attorney for several news organizations, District of Columbia Superior Court Judge Gerald I. Fisher declined to make public extensive transcripts from two sealed hearings in December and January. He held off for a day a decision about another hearing set for Thursday, to be attended by the man convicted of killing Levy.

“I do find that closure is essential,” Fisher said. “I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that at the moment, that needs to continue.”

He went on to say, “I strongly believe that there is a presumptive public right of access to court proceedings,” but added that “the right of access is not absolute.”

Fisher’s decision during a 50-minute hearing leaves almost entirely opaque the latest twists in a high-profile case that most assumed had ended more than two years ago. It also left some attorneys seeing red and pledging quick appeals.

“This is crazy,” declared Patrick Carome, the attorney for the media. “There shouldn’t be a presumption that everything is secret.”

A jury found illegal Salvadoran immigrant Ingmar Guandique guilty in November 2010 of murdering Levy. He’s serving a 60-year prison sentence for the May 1, 2001 killing, which prosecutors say occurred in Washington’s Rock Creek Park just before the 24-year-old Levy was about to return to her family’s home in Modesto, Calif.

After she disappeared, considerable media attention focused on revelations about Levy’s affair with then-Congressman Gary Condit, D-Calif.

The case seemed settled after Guandique’s 2011 sentencing, save for his appeal, until Justice Department prosecutors reported late last year having information that might undermine the credibility of one of their witnesses. The witness’s identity, the nature of the new information and its overall importance haven’t been made public. The hearings Dec. 18 and Jan. 4 were conducted out of earshot of the sole reporter present

The Levy story still has some heat, though. The hearing Wednesday afternoon was attended by more than half-a-dozen journalists, as well as a courtroom illustrator. McClatchy, The Washington Post, the Associated Press, Gannett and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press hired Carome’s law firm, WilmerHale, to argue for public access to past transcripts and future hearings. The Dec. 18 hearing transcript alone spanned some 90 pages, Carome noted.

“There is extraordinary community interest in what’s going on,” he said.

Guandique’s defense attorneys also urged Fisher to open the proceedings, though they disagreed with Carome’s contention that the Thursday hearing should be postponed if the judge decides, as appears likely, to keep the session largely closed. The hearing will involve discussions of evidence discovery, and won’t feature any witness testimony.

Federal prosecutors argued Wednesday, as they have since the new witness information arose in December, that safety considerations require a nearly absolute secrecy shield that extends to their legal arguments, as well as the underlying witness information.

“There’s little I can say,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Margaret Chriss said, though, elaborating later, she added, “There’s more I can say, but I can’t say it here.”

Several of the news organizations involved in the new legal action previously had devoted legal resources to opening other Levy case proceedings. Last January, responding to a media appeal, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals overturned the judge’s effort to keep juror questionnaires secret. The same court already has received a defense appeal challenging Fisher’s closure decisions.

Fisher said he thought that “in the not-too-distant future, a substantial amount of information will be disclosed” that might clarify what’s taking place in the hearings.

Email: mdoyle@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @MichaelDoyle10

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