Chandra Levy was a 24-year-old former congressional intern whose 2001 disappearance gripped the nation's capital.
(Photo: AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON - Secrecy shrouding the high-profile murder case of a former federal government intern deepened Wednesday when a local judge ruled that transcripts of recent proceedings would remain sealed.
Over the objections of a consortium of news media organizations, D.C. Superior Court Judge Gerald Fisher also said he would decide Thursday whether to close a scheduled afternoon hearing involving the man convicted in the slaying of Chandra Levy, whose 2001 disappearance gripped the nation's capital in the months before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
"I do find that closure is essential,'' Fisher said following a brief hearing. "I take no satisfaction doing this. I don't particularly enjoy sealing proceedings.''
Federal prosecutors and lawyers for Ingmar Guandique, convicted in the murder, have met twice since December in closed hearings about new information that could undermine the testimony of a prosecution witness. The nature of that information and the identity of the witness involved has remained sealed.
Patrick Carome, the attorney representing Gannett, parent company of USA TODAY, and three other news organizations - McClatchy Co., the Associated Press and the Washington Post - argued that Fisher's decision "raises serious ... questions'' about the public's right to access under the First Amendment.
"It really seems hard to imagine that, at a minimum, every word that was said (in the previous hearings) has to be blanked out and not made available,'' Carome said. "There has been no finding here of the need for secrecy.''
Joshua Deahl, one of Guandique's lawyers, said he supported the news media request, saying there are "alternatives to closure.''
The government, meanwhile, has requested the unusual restrictions, with little public explanation. Fisher, however, did reveal in a December hearing that he ordered the proceedings closed because of unspecified "safety concerns.''
"The court, in the last two hearings, looked at the issues and applied the correct analysis,'' Assistant U.S. Attorney Margaret Chriss said.
Mystery has cloaked many aspects of the Levy case since she was first reported missing. It was not until 2002 that her remains were found in a Washington park. Guandique was convicted in the killing in 2010 and sentenced to 60 years in prison, long after police focused immediate attention on then-congressman Gary Condit of California, who had reportedly formed a relationship with Levy before her disappearance. Condit was cleared of any involvement in her death, and he was ousted from Congress in a 2002 primary election.
The government's star witness in Guandique's prosecution was the defendant's former cellmate, Armando Morales. He told a jury in 2010 that Guandique admitted to him that he had killed Levy.
The strict secrecy provisions enforced by the judge took a comic turn at one point in the hearing when Deahl requested a private meeting with the judge and prosecutors to determine if he could even publicly disclose the purpose for Thursday's court session.
Fisher barred Carome from the brief private huddle at the judge's bench before allowing the Thursday session to be described as a discovery hearing that would not involve witness testimony.