Judge refuses to bar expert testimony at accused kidnapper's trial

Judge refuses to bar expert testimony at accused kidnapper's trial

URBANA — U.S. District Court Judge Colin Bruce has denied a request by attorneys for accused kidnapper and killer Brendt Christensen to bar expert testimony from the government.

In a 13-page order Wednesday, Bruce knocked down the attorneys' argument that prosecutors failed to provide them with analyses of forensic evidence by the Dec. 15 deadline.

"The government's response demonstrates that this is simply not true," Bruce wrote. "Rather than appearing to be stonewalling defendant and being uncooperative, the government's response reveals that the government has been forthcoming with the disclosures, quick to respond to any inquiry from defendant, and quick to keep defendant apprised of incoming reports, information, evidence, etc."

Christensen was arrested June 30 on kidnapping charges in the June 9 disappearance of visiting University of Illinois scholar Yingying Zhang. Later, the government amended the charge to kidnapping resulting in death, even though Ms. Zhang's body has not been found. Christensen is also charged with lying to federal agents.

In their request, Christensen's lawyers said they had only received one set of test results and didn't receive summaries of expert testimony that meet the requirements of the Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure.

In their response, prosecutors disagreed, saying they had more than met the requirements and provided more than 500 pages of DNA and blood evidence, a hard-disk drive with raw electronic evidence, a copy of the fingerprint analysis report, law-enforcement reports and cellphone records.

Prosecutors also said that in cases where a deadline was missed, it was because FBI analysts had not yet completed their reports.

In his ruling, Bruce agreed, saying Christensen's lawyers filed their motion "with inaccurate claims," while requesting "the most drastic and punishing remedy" available: barring expert testimony.

He said prosecutors have been complying with local and federal rules and replying to requests from Christensen's lawyers in a timely manner.

"If there has been any sort of violation ... it certainly does not rise to the level necessary to bar the expert from testifying," Bruce wrote.

If Christensen's lawyers still aren't able to obtain the forensic analyses they're seeking in the coming weeks, Bruce said he may revisit the issue.

But he encouraged both sides to cooperate.

"The court gently reminds everyone that neither the attorneys involved, defendant himself, the court, nor the public benefit when a party files a motion filled with hyperbole and inflated claims," Bruce wrote. "Rather, everyone involved is better served during the pretrial process when a collegial and cooperative atmosphere is fostered, and the parties conduct themselves in a professional manner to accomplish the task of being fully and fairly prepared for trial."

Bruce has yet to rule on the 12 pretrial motions filed Monday by Christensen's lawyers, including requests to suppress certain evidence, change the venue of the trial and to drop the kidnapping resulting in death charge against Christensen.

Prosecutors have until Jan. 29 to respond to those motions.

Christensen's trial is scheduled to begin Feb. 27, and the government has until Feb. 1 to decide whether to seek the death penalty, a decision that will ultimately be made by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

If the death penalty is sought, the trial is expected to be delayed.