Special Reports

September 26, 2010

Lawyers well-matched for Levy murder trial

WASHINGTON -- Distinctly zealous advocates will dissect the life and death of former Modesto resident Chandra Levy.

The long-awaited trial of Levy's accused killer, Ingmar Guandique, that begins Oct. 4 brings a public spotlight onto prosecutor Amanda Haines, lead defense attorney Santha Sonenberg and their respective legal partners. The sides seem evenly matched.

In court hearings and documents filed over the past year, the prosecution and defense teams alike appear aggressive and well-versed. They clash, sometimes sharply, but have retained a civil tone.

"Both sides come very well-prepared," former D.C.-based federal prosecutor David Schertler said Friday, "and that all makes for an excellent trial."

At the same time, the courtroom's hothouse atmosphere highlights personality differences. Sonenberg is in her early 50s. She appears buttoned-down and serious nearly all the time. Haines is in her 40s. She laughs more easily.

Sonenberg's partner, Maria Hawilo, is a University of Michigan Law School graduate in her early 30s, who will sometimes turn to Sonenberg for guidance. Haines' partner, Fernando Campoamor-Sanchez, is a Duke Law School graduate who has been known to fly private planes for fun.

The other major legal presence in Courtroom 320 of the H. Carl Moultrie Courthouse is Superior Court Judge Gerald I. Fisher. A veteran of nine years on the bench, Fisher seems calm but shows flashes of dry wit, as in a recent reference to a case involving Charms Industries.

"That's 'charms,' as in what nobody has ever accused me of being," said Fisher, who at another point cited former "Saturday Night Live" comedian Kevin Nealon.

Everyone will get to know each other a lot better over the next two months or so. They will be spending four days a week, Monday through Thursday, in the courtroom, where a jury will decide Guandique's fate.

Prosecutors say Guandique tried to sexually assault Levy in Washington's Rock Creek Park on May 1, 2001. At the time, Levy had finished graduate studies and an internship and was apparently preparing to return to California.

Prosecutor persistent

Guandique's attorneys are part of the District of Columbia's Public Defender Service, which has a staff of about 232. The prosecutors work in the nation's largest U.S. attorney's office, which employs some 700 lawyers and support staff.

The prosecutors are accustomed to winning. Last year, the U.S. attorney's office for the District of Columbia secured convictions in 82 percent of the homicide cases prosecuted.

A 16-year veteran of the U.S. attorney's office, Haines has handled some of the city's most notorious crimes, including the successful prosecution of two men who murdered New York Times reporter David Rosenbaum in 2006.

Haines is persistent, once securing a guilty plea to solve a 12-year-old murder in which the body was never found.

She speaks vividly, as if already before a jury, when she describes Guandique.

"He attacked Ms. Levy in the woods," Haines said at one recent hearing. "He took her off the path. He raped her. He killed her."

Defense diligent

Sonenberg, too, can speak bluntly, as when she characterized one interrogation ruse attempted by Washington, D.C., detectives who were interviewing Guandique.

"They lied to him," Sonenberg said.

Sonenberg typically sits next to Guandique, sometimes touching him on the shoulder as she makes a point. Occasionally, it seems she is showing there is nothing to fear from this man.

Like Hawilo, Sonenberg speaks Spanish. For most trial proceedings, though, Guandique requires a translator and may not fully comprehend his attorneys' diligence.

"She's very experienced, very talented, and she knows what to do in a courtroom," said Schertler, who saw Sonenberg in action while he was with the U.S. attorney's office.

For instance, Sonenberg and Hawilo unearthed documents from the 1940s to demonstrate that land used for the penitentiary in Victorville, near the Mojave Desert, had been transferred from state to federal control. The painstaking research was part of an unsuccessful argument that a state judge couldn't issue a search warrant for Guandique's federal prison cell.

Always maneuvering

Fisher has rejected a flurry of other defense motions, from a proposed change of venue to an effort to exclude jailhouse informants. Sonenberg and Hawilo are still questioning what they have described as the under-representation of Latinos on Washington juries.

Sonenberg has made similar arguments going back to at least 1991, when she was defending a group of Latino drug defendants.

Intense maneuvering and occasional gamesmanship come with the turf.

Periodically, the defense has complained about not getting access to evidence. Haines, in turn, recently complained she was getting "blindsided" by a defense argument.

Sometimes, though, even these adversaries come to a meeting of the minds.

"You're seeing something momentous here," Haines told the judge at one August hearing amid discussion of a jury issue. "Ms. Sonenberg and I agree."

Bee Washington Bureau reporter Michael Doyle can be reached at mdoyle@mcclatchydc.com or 202-383-0006.

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