The man convicted of killing former intern Chandra Levy returned to court Thursday for the first time in two years, and questions concerning the credibility of a prosecution witness will remain secret for now.
Over the objections of defense attorneys and attorneys for several news organizations, District of Columbia Superior Court Judge Gerald I. Fisher ruled Thursday that the next court proceedings will be sealed again.
“Ultimately, what can be disclosed will be disclosed,” Fisher said.
That left Ingmar Guandique, the 31-year-old Salvadoran immigrant who’s serving a 60-year sentence for felony murder in Levy’s death, to sit and listen impassively through a translating headset as attorneys skated over some secret new twists in his case.
His head shaven and his hands manacled, Guandique was garbed in an orange jumpsuit instead of the jacket and sweater adopted during his November 2010 trial
Fisher has sided with prosecutors in determining that safety considerations required closing the latest proceedings involving questions about a prosecution witness. The judge’s hand in controlling information was strengthened considerably Thursday, when the D.C. Court of Appeals rejected a defense plea to reverse Fisher’s earlier secrecy decisions.
Patrick Carome, an attorney for several news companies that have objected to the closed-door hearings, said he was very disappointed in the two courts’ rulings to impose what he called blanket secrecy.
On Wednesday, before Guandique arrived in Washington, Fisher rejected requests to make public the transcripts from hearings on Dec. 18 and Jan. 4. Following up Thursday, Fisher revealed that he’s given prosecutors until early April to spell out steps that might be taken to provide the public with some redacted details.
Guandique was summoned from prison for the hearing Thursday. A jury concluded in 2010 that he’d killed the 24-year-old Levy in Washington’s Rock Creek Park on May 1, 2001, shortly before she was to return to her family’s home in Modesto, Calif.
The case had seemed settled after Guandique’s 2011 sentencing, save for an oft-delayed appeal, until Justice Department prosecutors reported late last year that they had information that might impeach 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, and the hearings in December and January were conducted out of earshot of the sole reporter present.
In rejecting the defense’s plea Thursday to open up the proceeding, the court of appeals said:
“On the record before us, we cannot readily conclude that the trial court violated the requirements of the First and Sixth Amendments . . . or abused its discretion by entering the time-limited order sealing the proceedings to protect the compelling interests counseling against immediate public disclosure identified by the United States,” the appellate court reasoned in its one-page decision.
The First Amendment protects the rights of a free press, and the Sixth Amendment says, among other things, that “the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial.”
Carome said “there is virtually nothing in the public record” to clarify what’s going on behind the scenes of the government’s case. 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.
“We’ll be back next week,” promised Pauline Mandel, a lawyer with the Maryland Crime Victims’ Resource Center who’s representing Levy’s mother, Susan. “The victim has a right to know what’s going on.”