WASHINGTON – The nation’s fervent immigration debate and the name of former California congressman Gary Condit entered the courtroom Wednesday as jury selection continued in the trial of the man accused of killing Chandra Levy.
A judge dismissed more potential jurors Wednesday morning, several because of their stated dislike for illegal immigrants. This matters, because accused killer Ingmar Guandique entered the United States illegally from his native El Salvador.
“(One potential juror) is opposed to illegal immigrants,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Amanda Haines said, “and he thinks Ingmar Guandique should be killed.”
Superior Court Judge Gerald I. Fisher dismissed that potential juror, along with another individual who Haines said “gave some rather bizarre responses” in explaining attitudes toward immigrants. Yet another potential juror was dismissed after she described illegal immigrants as “horrible.”
The dismissed potential jurors were among 81 who had otherwise passed the first round of voir dire Monday. Fisher can dismiss an unlimited number of potential jurors for cause, while prosecutors and defense attorneys each have 10 peremptory challenges.
Defense attorneys Santha Sonenberg and Maria Hawilo posed at least one question that hinted at how they may raise doubts about their client’s guilt, when a potential juror indicated unhappiness over how the media paid so much attention to Levy’s relationship with Condit.
“They just latched onto one person, and ignored all the other people,” the juror said. “I just got sick about it.”
Hawilo posed a follow-up.
“What if there was evidence that Gary Condit may have been involved?” Hawilo asked.
The potential juror indicated would try to keep an open mind, and the defense attorneys did not elaborate on the Condit issue.
Detectives never identified Condit as a suspect, and he has steadfastly denied any involvement in Levy’s disappearance. He also filed a number of defamation lawsuits against tabloid newspapers and commentators who have suggested otherwise.
Prosecutors have said the former Modesto-based congressman may be called to testify on their behalf, and Condit’s attorney Bert Fields says Condit will testify fully and truthfully.
The jurors dismissed for cause have been let go for reasons ranging from unavoidable work conflicts to personal sentiments that might infect judgment. Guandique’s illegal immigrant status, as well as his alleged membership in the feared MS-13 gang, have been a particular focus.
“(One juror) believes all gang members should be castrated,” Haines said, adding dryly that “it was spelled wrong.”
Guandique listened to the translated proceedings through a headset. He wore a gray suit and a white turtleneck that covered his neck tattoos.
The judge had previously eliminated 33 potential jurors Monday, and started off Wednesday by dismissing another seven. Jury selection was expected to continue Wednesday afternoon and extend through at least part of Thursday.
Opening statements in the long-awaited trial are expected Thursday afternoon or Monday, as the court is not in session Friday.
Nine reporters sat in a separate room Wednesday, listening to the questioning of potential jurors. The trial will not be broadcast, and unlike some trials reporters are prohibited from operating electronic devices in the courtroom.
Prosecutors say Guandique killed Levy on May 1, 2001 during an attempted sexual assault in Washington, D.C.’s Rock Creek Park. At the time, Levy had finished graduate studies and a Bureau of Prisons internship and was reportedly preparing to return to California.
Levy’s parents Susan and Robert still live in Modesto, where she was raised. Susan Levy has received the judge’s permission to attend the trial, though she hasn’t appeared during the jury selection proceedings.