A D.C. Superior Court judge overseeing the 2010 Chandra Levy murder trial erred when he ruled not to release completed juror questionnaires to the public, the D.C. Court of Appeals ruled Thursday.
In a unanimous decision (PDF), the three appellate judges, Stephen H. Glickman, Kathryn A. Oberly and Warren R. King ordered Judge Gerald Fisher to review the questionnaires filled out by 16 selected jurors at the beginning of the trial, and disclose them unless there are privacy concerns.
Fisher had declined to do so despite repeated requests from the media, including The Washington Post, because he had promised the jurors the questionnaires would remain confidential.
In the 20-page decision written by Oberly, the judges ruled that the Post was acting as a “surrogate” for the public and “had a presumptive right of access to the jury questionnaires used in this case, and the trial court erred in not recognizing that right.”
The court ordered Fisher to reexamine the completed questionnaires and said he could meet with jurors in his chambers if he believed any of their answers were so “deeply personal” that they might need to be redacted. Those meetings would be on the record, the court ruled.
The appeals court also ruled Fisher should not have promised the jurors that their answers would remain confidential. Such a promise, the court ruled, “does not trump the First Amendment right of access.”
Finally, the court dismissed the argument by the U.S. Attorney’s Office that the Post and other media waived their right to protest Fisher’s decision because they did not do so before jury selection ended.
“The right of public access is a right that any member of the public can assert, whether it is for the purpose of reporting on a trial as it unfolds or researching jury selection 10 years later,” Oberly wrote.
In November, 2010, after a month-long trial, a D.C. Superior Court jury found Ingmar Guandique guilty of first-degree felony murder in the death of Levy, a former Congressional intern whose body was found in Rock Creek Park in 2001.
Guandique, 30, was sentenced to 60 years in prison.
This post has been updated.
Read more: The Post’s crime coverage