Judge in accused kidnapper's trial removed from all criminal cases

Judge in accused kidnapper's trial removed from all criminal cases

URBANA — A federal judge involved in one of the area's highest-profile criminal cases has been removed from hearing it, as well as other criminal cases involving the U.S. Attorney's Office.

U.S. District Court Judge James Shadid, chief judge for the Central District of Illinois, on Friday reassigned the Brendt Christensen kidnapping-resulting-in-death case to himself and removed Judge Colin Bruce from it.

Shadid, who sits in Peoria, further temporarily barred Bruce, who sits in Urbana, from hearing any cases involving prosecution by the U.S. Attorney's Office, where Bruce worked for 25 years.

The number is probably in the neighborhood of 50 and includes such cases as drugs, domestic terrorism, human trafficking, sexual exploitation of children, child pornography, robbery and kidnapping, to name a few.

Sharon Paul, spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in the Central District, declined to comment.

The Illinois Times reported Friday that Bruce's removal from hearing criminal cases apparently stemmed from an email exchange Bruce had with a former co-worker in the U.S. Attorney's Office that happened during a 2016 trial involving an Urbana woman convicted of international parental kidnapping.

There was no answer at Bruce's Urbana office late Friday afternoon and no response to an email seeking comment.

An order Bruce entered Thursday in the 2015 kidnapping case against Sarah Nixon confirmed that he was recusing himself "in an abundance of caution" over what he termed an "innocuous" and "private email conversation with someone entirely uninvolved in this case."

Nixon, who was sentenced to 26 months in prison in May 2017, is seeking a new trial.

"In fact, the record indicates there was no contact concerning the email between my former paralegal in Springfield and any member of the prosecution in Urbana," Bruce wrote in his recusal order.

The exchange was between Bruce, in Urbana, and his former paralegal, Lisa Hopps, in Springfield, during which he explained to her why he wasn't at the retirement party for U.S. Attorney James Lewis, Bruce's former boss in the Springfield office.

The Illinois Times reported that the email exchange contained comments from Bruce in which he reportedly critiqued, in a somewhat disparaging manner, the performance of federal prosecutors while the trial was in progress.

Bruce has presided over Christensen's case since Christensen was charged in July 2017 with allegedly kidnapping visiting Chinese scholar Yingying Zhang. The charge was later amended to kidnapping resulting in death even though Miss Zhang's body has never been found.

Bruce has made multiple substantive rulings in the death-penalty case, meaning reassignment to another judge could delay the start even beyond April 2019. Bruce also has been hearing the fraud case of former Peoria Congressman Aaron Schock.

He has been on the bench since October 2013, replacing Judge Michael McCuskey, who retired.

A career prosecutor, Bruce served as the first assistant U.S. attorney for the Central District from 2010 to 2014, overseeing a staff of about 40 prosecutors in Urbana, Springfield, Peoria and Rock Island.

In an interview in December with The News-Gazette, Bruce said he has between 350 and 400 cases assigned to him. Not all of those are criminal cases, so he will still be able to hear others.