UPDATE: Judge OKs request by alleged kidnapper's attorneys

UPDATE: Judge OKs request by alleged kidnapper's attorneys

URBANA — A federal court judge has allowed a request by attorneys for accused kidnapper Brendt Christensen to withdraw from representing him.

In a brief hearing Friday morning, Judge Colin Bruce allowed the request of Thomas Bruno and his sons Anthony and Evan Bruno of Urbana, to no longer represent the 27-year-old Champaign man.
Bruce then appointed the office of the federal public defender to step in.

Christensen was indicted in late July for the June 9 kidnapping of visiting University of Illinois scholar Yingying Zhang, 26, of Urbana, who hails from China.

Because authorities have said she is presumed dead — even though she’s not been found — federal prosecutors indicated there could be more serious charges coming that might warrant the death penalty.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Bryan Freres confirmed that for Bruce on Friday, indicating that prosecutors would seek a superceding indictment in October.

Prior to hearing that, Bruce had hesitated in acting on the Brunos’ request, noting that nothing had changed since they were last in court in late August.

Speaking on behalf of his firm, Evan Bruno disputed that.

“The American Bar Association model rules say a death penalty defense begins when the government even hints it’s going to seek (that). Work gets started when there’s even a whiff that it’s coming down the pipeline,” he said.

Evan Bruno urged the judge not to wait on the lawyer change until a more serious charge is lodged, saying that would cost the public defender’s office valuable time.

“They are ready to go, to put in the massive amount of effort required. We don’t have the funds or the resources to do that,” he said, referring to Christensen's lack of funds to pay for his defense.

Even though the government may file a charge for which the death penalty is an option — in this case murder in the course of a kidnapping — the case will still have to be vetted through a panel at the Department of Justice in a mini-trial of sorts to see if the death penalty will actually be sought.

Complicating matters is that none of the public defenders in the Central District of Illinois is qualified to mount a death penalty defense.

Federal Public Defender for the Central District Tom Patton, whose office is in Peoria, gave Bruce the name of Robert Tucker, an assistant public defender in Washington D.C. who has handled “mainly terrorism cases that were eligible and four cases where the death penalty was sought.”

“I haven’t spoken to him personally. He’s out of the country. But I’m told he’s willing to accept this case,” Patton said.

Patton told Bruce that Elisabeth Pollock, an assistant public defender in the Urbana office, met with Christensen on Thursday to go over what would happen and to confirm that he was on board with their representation.

Patton said Pollock and George Taseff, another assistant public defender from the Peoria office, would assist Tucker. Both have handled serious felony cases in state and federal courts but do not have the necessary experience in federal death penalty cases — which are quite rare — to be lead counsel.

Appearing in jail garb and looking a bit pale, Christensen confirmed for the judge that he was willing to allow the Brunos to withdraw and would need appointed counsel. He told Bruce that he has about $60,000 in outstanding student loans, $4,000 in car loans and a spouse who earns about $2,500 a month.

The Brunos had filed their motion seeking to withdraw a week ago, citing Christensen’s family’s inability to pay them any more for the intensive defense that would be required for a capital case.

Bruce put it this way: “If you agree to represent someone for X offense and then later it becomes, X plus Y plus Z, they can ask to withdraw.”

Last month, Bruce set a trial date of Feb. 27. He told Patton he wanted to stick to that schedule, even though that may be optimistic given the volume of discovery, which is the subject of a protective order, that the government will have to hand over to the new defense team.

“We need to get this case resolved. That’s months and months away,” Bruce noted.

Christensen was arrested June 30 and has been held in the Macon County jail since then.

Outside the courthouse after the hearing, Patton made a brief statement saying that it would be the only statement to come from the defense team while the case is active.

“I ask everyone to recall he’s presumed innocent and the allegations are only allegations. All you’ve heard so far is one party’s version of the facts,” he said.

Patton said he hoped the defense team would be able to head off the death penalty at the Department of Justice.

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cjw61822@hotmail.com wrote on September 08, 2017 at 11:09 am

So much for those rumors that the feds were gonna rehire the Brunos......... this is a big boy case.  Way over their heads.


Back to drinking tickets and DUI's, and apparently buying the same clothes together right down to the shoes...................

welive wrote on September 08, 2017 at 7:09 pm

tom bruno is the best lawyer in town.

zofaan wrote on September 09, 2017 at 2:09 am

At least his new lawyer doesn't sport the William Howard Taft look.