Anti-gang sentiment leads to jury selection delays in Levy murder trial

Bee Washington BureauOctober 21, 2010 

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A poster with a yellow ribbon is drapped around a photograph of Chandra Levy, who disappeared in Washington April 30, was used at a silent march around the state Capitol in Sacramento, Calif., Friday, May 18, 2001. The march, to draw attention to the disapparence, was held the same night Levy was to attend a graduation dinner at the University of Southern California's Sacramento center.

(RICH PEDRONCELLI / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS)

WASHINGTON – Attorneys on Thursday slogged through a protracted jury selection in the trial of the man accused of killing former Modesto resident Chandra Levy, but still have more work ahead of them.

A short day and widespread anti-gang sentiment frustrated Superior Court Judge Gerald I. Fisher’s hopes for finishing the 16-member panel Thursday. Attorneys and potential jurors will return Friday afternoon for a fifth and final day of winnowing.

Opening statements will occur Monday, for a trial that prosecutors say could last about four weeks.

To settle on a panel of 12 jurors and four alternates, Fisher, prosecutors and attorneys for accused killer Ingmar Guandique on Monday began screening about 112 Washington, D.C. residents.

Thursday’s morning proceedings were canceled because one attorney had a medical appointment

By Thursday afternoon, using 12 pages worth of questions as well as personal interviews, Fisher had identified 41 potential members of the jury panel. Attorneys on Friday will use up to 12 peremptory challenges each to eliminate those they don’t want.

The case’s original notoriety, which primarily derived from Levy’s relationship with former California congressman Gary Condit, has not prompted many juror dismissals. Instead, many dismissed during the voir dire process lost their seats because of animus toward illegal immigrants or their stated fear of gang members.

Guandique entered the United States illegally from his native El Salvador, and is reported to claim membership in the MS-13 gang. He has been incarcerated in federal prison since 2002 on other charges. On Thursday, the 29-year-old felon hid his neck tattoos beneath a blue turtleneck sweater.

“I can’t think of any redeeming social value to gangs,” said one woman, who was dismissed.

Other potential jurors were dismissed because of their past experiences, including one who said his father had worked as a probation officer.

“I don’t think that gave me a particularly good view of defendants,” the man said Thursday.

Fisher dismissed the man, as well as a woman who reported a co-worker had apparently been beaten by gang members. Other potential jurors, though, were retained even when they said they had some prior knowledge of a tragic episode that according to defense attorneys prompted "thousands and thousands" of stories.

“It was almost impossible to get away from discussion of the case,” said one man, who was accepted as a potential juror. “You really couldn’t avoid it when it first occurred.”

Levy disappeared May 1, 2001. At the time, she had finished graduate studies and a Bureau of Prisons internship and was reportedly planning on returning to California. Prosecutors say Guandique killed her during an attempted sexual assault in Washington's Rock Creek Park.

Prosecutors have named Condit as a potential witness, or as someone whose name may crop up during the trial. In new court filings this week, San Diego-based criminal defense attorney Thomas J. Warwick, Jr. identified himself as Condit's current lawyer for purposes of the trial.

A separate attorney, well-known entertainment lawyer Bert Fields, has also been speaking on Condit's behalf, most recently to confirm that Condit has written a book manuscript.

"It won't be shown to anyone until after the trial," Fields said in an e-mail.

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