Accused kidnapper's attorneys want main charge dropped, venue changed

Accused kidnapper's attorneys want main charge dropped, venue changed

CHAMPAIGN — Brendt Christensen's attorneys filed 12 pretrial motions Monday, including one requesting a change of trial venue and another to dismiss the main charge against the former University of Illinois grad student — kidnapping resulting in the death of visiting Chinese scholar Yingying Zhang.

They also filed six motions to suppress or exclude evidence they believe was obtained illegally or improperly, including the surreptitious recordings of Christensen made at a campus vigil for Ms. Zhang a day before he was arrested.

U.S. District Court Judge Colin S. Bruce had set Monday as the deadline for any pretrial motions to be filed.

In the motion to change venues, Christensen's lawyers asked for the trial to be moved from the federal courthouse in Urbana to the Rock Island Division of the Central District of Illinois or the Eastern Division of the Northern District of Illinois (Chicago). They argued that a fair and impartial trial would be impossible due to the "journalistic tsunami of pretrial publicity."

Not since John Ewing firebombed Judge George Miller's courtroom in 1997, they argued, "has the Central District of Illinois seen another case involving such extensive, unrelenting, inflammatory and inherently prejudicial pretrial publicity in the local media as Mr. Christensen's."

Between June 22 and Dec. 31 last year, his lawyers said The News-Gazette published "no fewer than 55 articles about the case," with coverage both of the procedural steps in the case and human interest pieces on Ms. Zhang's family.

"Between The News-Gazette, other local newspapers, online news outlets, TV news stories and social media, the vast majority of people in the Urbana division have been exposed to information about the case," Christensen's lawyers wrote.

They also cited News-Gazette commenters calling for Christensen to be killed as evidence of the "overwhelmingly negative" public response, and expect media coverage to increase as the case gets closer to the trial date of Feb. 27.

In addition to the media coverage, Christensen's lawyers said this case has had, "and will continue to have, a deep and profound impact upon the entire University of Illinois community, its Chinese student population and all of the residents of the 11 East-Central Illinois counties that comprise the Central District of Illinois."

Lawyers: No evidence for main charge

In the motion to dismiss the charge of kidnapping resulting in death, Christensen's lawyers' argument is two-pronged.

For one, they argue, prosecutors lack evidence that Ms. Zhang was coerced or forced into Christensen's car.

Second, federal prosecutors lack jurisdiction, they contend.

"The evidence does not suggest that Mr. Christensen forcibly seized, abducted or carried away Ms. Zhang without her consent. This leaves the government with having to show that Mr. Christensen enticed Ms. Zhang into his car through false pretense," his lawyers wrote. "Counsel is unaware of any evidence of the conversation that took place between Ms. Zhang and Mr. Christensen or that he lured her into his car through false representations."

Christensen's lawyers also argued that the case is a matter for the state, not the federal government.

In their superseding indictment, when the main charge was elevated to include "resulting in death," prosecutors argued it was a federal case because Christensen used instruments of interstate commerce, namely a Motorola cellphone and a Saturn Astra vehicle, in committing the alleged crime.

Christensen's lawyers argued that he didn't appear to use the phone to commit the alleged crime and that if the car didn't cross state borders, it shouldn't be considered an instrument of interstate commerce.

"To counsel's knowledge, there is no evidence suggesting that he contacted Ms. Zhang in any way, whether by way of a telephone call or use of the internet on his phone," his lawyers wrote. "Nor is there any evidence that Mr. Christensen used his phone to demand a reward or ransom or otherwise for the specific purpose of furthering commission of the" charged offense.

'Disturbing dreams'

In a separate motion, Christensen's lawyers are seeking records on how his phone was used by authorities.

They also filed motions to suppress or exclude evidence, access a sealed document, require the government to disclose notice of any evidence it has, and access information about the jury pool.

This included a motion to exclude testimony from Christensen's wife, citing marital privilege.

Christensen's wife gave statements to the FBI about conversations with her husband, where he "described disturbing dreams and otherwise revealed his most private thoughts," his lawyers wrote.

The motions were filed by Elisabeth Pollock, an assistant federal public defender in Urbana. She is one of three court-appointed lawyers defending Christensen.

Prosecutors also submitted one pretrial motion requesting permission to file under seal their motion to admit evidence, in order to protect the privacy of a potential witness and to not increase potential "public condemnation of the accused."

Both parties have until Jan. 29 to respond to these pretrial motions.

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zofaan wrote on January 16, 2018 at 11:01 am

Oooh, a lot of juicy details. I have a lot to ponder. I knew that woman was an informant. There is no other way the FBI could have gotten those recordings. Parabolic microphone - yeah right. 

I agree this should be an Illinois charge. The Feds do lack jurisdiction. And all the publicity in this area does prejudice his defense. The venue should be changed, although then I would miss it. I would miss seeing the rugged Brendt at court (he's my hero), but I do want the best defense for him.