News media seek access to documents in Chandra Levy trial

Daniel Skallman | Secret Courts | Feature | November 3, 2010

Four media organizations jointly filed a motion Wednesday asking the District of Columbia Superior Court to grant public access to court documents in an ongoing criminal trial involving the murder of Chandra Levy, a 24-year-old Washington, D.C., intern who disappeared in 2001.

In the case of U.S. v. Ingmar Guandique, The Washington Post, the Associated Press, Gannett Company Inc. and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press filed a joint motion requesting immediate access to all exhibits presented to the jury during the ongoing criminal trial, and to the written questionnaires completed by jurors during jury selection. In response to inquiries from The Washington Post after the trial began last week, a court public affairs officer had indicated that such documents would not be made available to the press or the public during the ongoing prosecution, according to a memorandum filed by the media organizations.

In addition to requesting access to the documents, the news organizations also filed a motion for leave to intervene in the case, a process required of any person or group that is not a party to a case, but is seeking access to court materials. Such a motion enables the organizations to be heard by the court regarding their reasons for requesting access to the documents.

In their motion to intervene, the news organizations assert that the First Amendment and common law provide for the public’s right of access to criminal proceedings and related court records, and that the U.S. Supreme Court has long recognized this access.

“Such access arrangements will enable the press and the public to better follow and understand this unfolding criminal proceeding, in which there is a great community interest and concern,” the motion states.

The organizations also argue that access to the documents will not have a negative affect on trial proceedings or participants and that “there has been no demonstration of any compelling and overriding interest that would warrant delaying or blocking access by the public and the press to at least the bulk of these materials.”

Patrick Carome, the attorney representing the media parties, said that while questioning of potential jurors normally has been done orally and has taken place in open court in the past, courts are now often turning to lengthy, written questionnaires, and said that this practice becomes problematic if the documents are withheld from the public.

"There was a fairly extensive written juror questionnaire, and so a lot of the information that goes into the selection of the jury . . . is now in these forms that are seen by the court and the lawyers, but not available to the people sitting in the courtroom. And you end up missing out on and not being able to understand a large portion of the jury selection process, which is a critical part of a criminal trial," he said.

Carome also said that while court exhibits are shown temporarily to those sitting in the court room, reporters often need more hands-on access to these documents on an ongoing basis in order to better understand them and to better explain the story to the public.

"The momentary access that you get as a reporter to something up on a screen, depending on the nature of the exhibit and the complexity of the case, can make a big difference," he said. "There are lots of practical ways in which it’s much more useful for the reporter to be able to tell . . . and understand the full story if they have [access] to the actual copy."

Carome added that the news organizations recognize that juror privacy is a legitimate concern under certain circumstances, but because all of the written documents were sealed from the public, it is impossible to tell whether privacy concerns are warranted in this case.

"What we had here is [a] complete blanket withholding of all portions of the juror questionnaires. So we acknowledge that there may be instances where there is sufficiently sensitive [information provided] by jurors that would make limited redaction warranted," he said. He added that the court should redact sensitve portions of the documents rather than sealing them altogether.

"We don’t have a problem with the court doing what’s necessary to do a responsible examination of the records to see whether there needs to be any limited redaction," he said.

Chandra Levy’s disappearance has become one of the most infamous unsolved murder cases in Washington in recent years, particularly due to allegations that Levy had an affair with former U.S. Rep. Gary Condit, a Democrat from Levy's home district in the Central Valley of California. The details of the affair were chronicled by the Post in its 2008 series “Who Killed Chandra Levy?” The series also revealed missteps by police investigating Levy’s disappearance and reinvigorated efforts to find her killer after many years of stagnation in the investigation, according to the memo.