Death penalty raises courtroom stakes

Death penalty raises courtroom stakes

URBANA — A local criminal defense attorney with vast experience in state and federal courtrooms said there are legitimate reasons why a lawyer would not want to represent a client in a capital case.

"There are two main reasons to say no. You don't feel qualified to do it. The second reason would be you have a conflict," said Urbana attorney Steve Beckett, who's been involved in six death penalty cases in his 44-year law career.

There's a third reason.

"With the amount of work it takes, I can't afford to do it," he said of a lawyer's possible response.

Urbana attorneys Tom Bruno and his sons Evan and Anthony Bruno, the only three lawyers in their firm, told U.S. District Court Judge Colin Bruce on Friday that they wanted out of alleged kidnapper Brendt Christensen's case because of the spectre of more serious charges the government may file that might mean the ultimate punishment should he be convicted. The judge allowed their request.

Other than Christensen's inability to pay them for a death penalty defense, the Brunos revealed no reasons for wanting to divorce the area's most notorious criminal suspect.

It's possible they just don't want to invest the time a death penalty case would require, given the thriving criminal defense practice they operate. It's also possible that something has changed over the last eight weeks.

"Could the judge say to the Brunos, 'You're stuck'?" Beckett said. "I don't think so. One of the concerns I would have if I was the judge is the relationship between the client and attorneys."

"I've been appointed lots of times when the power of my personality got me through. I wasn't my client's friend. I was his lawyer. Sometimes, clients don't face the facts," said Beckett, who stressed he has no personal insight as to why the Brunos asked to withdraw.

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Christensen was arrested June 30 for the alleged kidnapping of Yingying Zhang of Urbana.

The 26-year-old visiting scholar from China came to the University of Illinois in April to study agriculture and was reported missing June 9. Three weeks later, Christensen, 28, of Champaign, was in custody for allegedly luring her into his car and taking her to his west Champaign apartment.

While the FBI has said Ms. Zhang is presumed dead, she has not been found.

Government officials have not publicly disclosed why they believe she is dead, and attorneys in the case, including the now-released Brunos, are under a protective order that precludes them from discussing what they know.

Christensen has been indicted only for kidnapping. On Friday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Bryan Freres confirmed that more serious charges are coming in October.

While not specifying the exact charge, it's likely the government will ask a grand jury to indict Christensen for murder during the course of a kidnapping, one of the approximately 40 federal offenses for which the death penalty is a possibility.

Just because death is an option, it doesn't mean it will be sought. There is an extensive review process at the Department of Justice that must happen first. The ultimate decision on whether to seek it is up to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

"A death penalty case in federal court is very, very rare," said Beckett, who volunteered his Urbana firm to represent Ms. Zhang's family to help them understand the federal criminal justice system.

"One of my former students contacted me and said they really need someone who can advocate for them. The message they received about what happened to their daughter is horrible. Our community, including the legal community, has to be there for that family," he said.

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With some familiarity with Chinese courts, Beckett said there is "no comparison" between the two systems.

Ms. Zhang's parents, her only brother and her boyfriend are in Champaign County. They have said they will not return home to southeastern China without their daughter.

Having been appointed in a 2003 federal death penalty case out of Kankakee County, Beckett knows the ropes.

He described the DOJ screening process as a "very sophisticated presentation utilizing comparable cases from across the United States and your own client's background to say to DOJ: 'This is not a death penalty case.'

"It's the only time in my life I've been inside the Department of Justice."

"A U.S. attorney is present and you make your presentation. You get asked questions about your client and his background: What do the reports say? Why do you think the evidence (might not support the death penalty)?

"It becomes a star chamber," he said, referring to the medieval English court of inquisitors known for their arbitrary and severe punishments. "You leave. The DOJ people are having their pow-wow about why this should be a death penalty case. You go home and wait.

"I'll bet it was a month before we knew if it was a death penalty. The committee said no. It's rare there is a death penalty case," he said.

Because of that rarity, many lawyers are not qualified to represent death penalty defendants.

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Tom Bruno, licensed to practice 37 years, has represented several accused murderers in state court during his 37-year career. His sons have not.

The elder Bruno was involved in cases in the 1980s where the state sought the death penalty. However, his clients ended up pleading guilty to lesser crimes for prison sentences so he never went through the death penalty phase of sentencing. (Former Gov. George Ryan imposed a moratorium on Illinois' death penalty in 2000 and it was eventually abolished in 2011.)

At Friday's hearing in Christensen's case, Federal Public Defender Tom Patton said none of the public defenders in the Central District of Illinois have sufficient death penalty experience to represent Christensen solo, so he reached out to a Washington, D.C.-based federal defender who has, mostly representing alleged terrorists.

Patton said that attorney, Robert L. Tucker, will have to work up a proposed budget for Christensen's defense to present to Bruce.

Patton also said that Elisabeth Pollock, an assistant public defender in the Urbana office, and George Taseff, an assistant in the Peoria office, will serve as co-counsel.

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Beckett's 2003 appointment was his first in a federal death penalty case. He was assisted by two other lawyers and an investigator in his firm.

"There is a special Death Penalty Resource Center for federal defenders and CJA (Criminal Justice Act) attorneys. We had materials ... where you could train yourself and call a hotline. Those resources are there. You're not just appointed and set adrift, but you have to be willing to make the commitment to do the training," he said.

Beckett stressed that accepting appointments in any federal case is not about making lawyers rich.

The going rate set by Congress to compensate appointed criminal attorneys is about $132 an hour with a limit of about $10,000 per case, unless the lawyer is able to persuade the chief judge of the federal circuit that his or her services were "extraordinary" and deserving of more compensation.

He said that in his 2003 appointment, his firm earned about $90 an hour from the government at a time when he was charging private clients around $250 per hour.

"It can't be about the money. It's similar to pro bono work. You have to be committed to the system and willing to accept responsibility," he said.

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GLG wrote on September 10, 2017 at 7:09 am

More money to be made with DUI, underage drinking, shoplifting for the Bruno's. They had no intention of taking this case from the start. wrote on September 10, 2017 at 4:09 pm

Pity we will never learn how much the suspect p[aid for two court appearances from the Bruno's  My guess is 5 figures........................