Prosecution, defense seek different delays for start of accused kidnapper's trial

Prosecution, defense seek different delays for start of accused kidnapper's trial

URBANA — Prosecutors and defense attorneys in the trial of accused kidnapper and killer Brendt Christensen, currently set to start Feb. 27, sought different delays in separate filings Wednesday.

Both parties will meet Monday with U.S. District Court Judge Colin Bruce to discuss a new schedule and were asked to propose new start dates by the end of the day Wednesday. Prosecutors asked that the trial be pushed back to October, while Christensen's attorneys sought a delay until June 2019.

Christensen, 28, of Champaign, was arrested June 30, three weeks after visiting University of Illinois visiting scholar Yingying Zhang was last seen. He was indicted on a single charge of kidnapping, which was upgraded in October to kidnapping resulting in death, opening the possibility that U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions would seek the death penalty.

After the government filed notice Jan. 19 that it would seek the death penalty, all parties agreed that the trial would need to be delayed. The question then became for how long.

"The United States submits that a trial date starting on or around Oct. 16, 2018 — approximately nine months after the (death penalty) notice was filed — would balance the concerns of the victim's family and the public in the speedy resolution of justice and the defendant's need for adequate time to prepare for trial," U.S. Attorney John Childress, along with assistants Eugene Miller and Bryan Freres, wrote Wednesday.

Their filing argued that various factors favor a shorter delay. They noted that Christensen's lawyers treated this as a potential capital case even before the superseding indictment accusing him of causing Ms. Zhang's death was filed and that they've already given his lawyers various sets of forensic evidence.

They also said it "is a straightforward charge occurring over a discrete period of time," and that they don't expect mental-capacity defenses, since those "do not appear readily viable in this case."

Citing previous cases in which the time between the death-penalty notice and the trial has ranged from four to 10 months, prosecutors argued that eight months, with an October trial date, would be reasonable.

But Christensen's lawyers argued that amount was too short.

"The time which counsel requests to prepare this capital trial is on the lower end of both the mean and median intervals between indictment, NOI (notice of intent to seek the death penalty) and trial dates in other federal capital cases," they wrote, adding that their proposed delay of 16 months "is necessary for counsel to provide the representation required by the Fifth, Sixth and Eighth Amendments in a capital case and comply with professional standards governing such representation."

As part of their investigation into any mitigating factors, Christensen's lawyers said they'll need time to investigate his social history, including "a detailed and comprehensive collection and analysis of every record that exists concerning the defendant, in-person interviews with individuals who have known or had contact with Mr. Christensen throughout his entire life and a multigenerational investigation of the family tree."

They said this, along with a comprehensive mental-health evaluation, is part of the "recognized standard of performance in capital cases."

They also said they have a duty as Christensen's defense lawyers to "fully investigate every potential defense and raise all arguable legal claims."

Bruce said he would have accepted a joint proposed start date, but Childress wrote that "the parties were unable to agree to a joint scheduling order" by Wednesday.