News media challenge court secrecy in Chandra Levy murder case

 

McClatchy Newspapers

The Chandra Levy murder mystery has transformed, again, into a broader debate over public access to court proceedings.

In legal filings Wednesday, news media organizations that include McClatchy, The Washington Post, the Associated Press and Gannett formally challenged a judge’s orders keeping potentially crucial new developments secret. The companies want access to future hearings and transcripts of past hearings that were closed, concerning a prosecution witness whose credibility now may be in question.

“In light of the total secrecy, news organizations . . . that have attempted to report on these developments have been left to speculate about what is happening,” attorney Patrick J. Carome wrote in a brief for the media companies.

Carome and his fellow attorney with the WilmerHale law firm, Steven P. Lehotsky, contend in their 15-page brief that the cloak of secrecy now draped over the new Levy trial developments frustrate the First Amendment rights of news organizations that “have devoted substantial journalistic resources to covering the criminal proceedings” in the long-running Levy drama.

Several of the media organizations involved in the new legal action, including the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, previously 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 value of public trials is undisputed,” the D.C. Court of Appeals declared in the earlier decision. “The presence of the public and the press at criminal trials historically has been thought to enhance the integrity and quality of what takes place.”

A graduate student and former Bureau of Prisons intern, the 24-year-old Levy was preparing to return to her family’s home in Modesto, Calif., from Washington when she disappeared May 1, 2001. Rumors and then revelations that she’d been involved in a sexual relationship with then-Rep. Gary Condit, D-Calif., transformed her case into a national media sensation.

In November 2010, after the cold case was resurrected, a Washington jury convicted Ingmar Guandique of Levy’s murder. He’s serving a 60-year prison sentence.

Sometime late last year, Justice Department prosecutors brought information that could undermine the credibility of one of their witnesses to the attention of D.C. Superior Court Judge Gerald I. Fisher. The witness’s identity and the nature of the new information hasn’t been made public, and hearings Dec. 18 and Jan. 4 were conducted out of earshot of the sole reporter present.

“The possible disclosure of that information may create safety issues . . . that I have concluded are somewhat substantial here,” Fisher said at the Dec. 18 hearing.

The most important witness for the prosecution was a former Fresno, Calif., gang member named Armando Morales, who testified that Guandique had confessed to him while they were in the same prison.

“Given the circumstantial nature of much of the government’s case, the credibility of one of its witnesses is obviously of great importance,” the media organization’s brief notes.

Guandique’s defense attorneys have filed their own appeal challenging the trial judge’s secrecy orders. A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to comment Wednesday.

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

Read more Politics Wires stories from the Miami Herald

  •  
Ellen Adelman, of Des Moines, Iowa, waits to listen to former Sec. of State Hillary Rodham Clinton speak during U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin's annual fundraising Steak Fry, Sunday, Sept. 14, 2014, in Indianola, Iowa.

    Iowa Democrats react to Hillary Rodham Clinton

    Iowa Democrats gave a warm welcome Sunday to Hillary Rodham Clinton at retiring Sen. Tom Harkin's annual fundraiser. But not all party loyalists from the early-voting state were ready to hand her the 2016 presidential nomination just yet.

  •  
Former Sen. Hillary Clinton signs autographs during the Harkin Steak Fry in Indianola Ipwa on September 14, 2014. (Zach Boyden-Holmes/McClatchy)

    Hillary Clinton to Iowa: I’m back.

    Hillary Clinton all but kicked off her 2016 White House bid Sunday before a festive crowd of 6,000 in this pivotal state, presenting herself as a child and champion of the still-struggling middle class.

  •  
Designer Vivienne Westwood, alongside her granddaughter Cora Corre, during her Spring/Summer 2015 collection during London Fashion Week, at Victoria House in central London, Sunday, Sept. 14, 2014.

    Westwood show highlights Scotland, not fashion

    Vivienne Westwood may be staging a catwalk show, but Scotland — not clothes — is foremost on the designer's mind.

Miami Herald

Join the
Discussion

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category