More motions: Defense also seeks to bar sex-assault claim

More motions: Defense also seeks to bar sex-assault claim

URBANA — Further motions by defense attorneys for suspected murderer Brendt Christensen challenge federal prosecutors' evidence in the case of missing University of Illinois scholar Yingying Zhang.

Ms. Zhang disappeared June 9, 2017, and is presumed dead by the FBI. A trial has been set for April 2019, but could be delayed by the recent removal of U.S. District Judge Colin Bruce, based on the discovery of a series of disparaging ex parte emails unrelated to the Christensen case.

Among the motions filed Friday by Christensen's attorneys:

— The defense seeks to prevent prosecutors from introducing allegations of sexual assault of a woman Christensen was said to have met on an online dating service several years earlier.

— The defense seeks to suppress some testimony and evidence of two witnesses, one of whom reported a man matching Christensen's description claimed to be an "undercover cop" in the campus area on the date of Ms. Zhang's disappearance.

— The defense asked to block a report on alleged mistreatment of a guinea pig as a "serious act of violence."

The News-Gazette reported Saturday on filings contesting the reliability of DNA evidence found in Christensen's Champaign apartment, and the training of cadaver-sniffing dog, also in the apartment.

Just before a Friday deadline, defense attorneys filed more than 500 pages of motions.

The sexual assault claim

In the filing about the alleged sexual assault, the defense argued the accusations are "riddled with inconsistency, implausibility and contradictions of objective facts as to be incredible on their face."

According to the filing, an unnamed woman called the FBI Public Access Line on June 30, 2017, the day of Christensen's arrest on a federal criminal complaint that charged him with Ms. Zhang's kidnapping three weeks earlier.

The woman reported she had met Christensen four years earlier on dating site OKcupid.com.

"She claimed that they went on a date together to get coffee, following which Mr. Christensen drove her to a cemetery, choked and threatened her and forced her to perform sexual acts. Thereafter, Mr. Christensen drove her home and she never reported what had happened," the filing states.

She was interviewed by law enforcement officers on four separate occasions to the defense lawyers' knowledge, they wrote.

The defense argued "Christensen had no OKcupid account at the time that (the woman) says that she met him on the site."

The filing goes on to challenge the date of the alleged assault and asserts Christensen was a full-time student at University of Wisconsin-Madison at the time, and did not move to Champaign until August 2013, when he enrolled at the University of Illinois to pursue a Ph.D. in physics.

The filing stated that the woman admitted she had a membership in Fetlife.com, a bondage/fetish site, and deleted it a few days before she called the FBI.

Christensen's lawyers also challenged a claim "the government has orally informed defense counsel" the only other "serious act of violence" was their client's alleged mistreatment of a guinea pig.

"Both of these allegations are false and unreliable and thus the government is constitutionally and statutorily prohibited from presenting them in a capital sentencing proceeding," the defense wrote.

Suicide watch in 2017

Another motion to strike evidence involves "the non-statutory aggravating factor of 'future dangerousness' from the notice of intent to seek a sentence of death."

It argues the aggravating factor violates both the Eighth and Fifth amendments and the probative value of the evidence the government cites is "outweighed by the danger of creating unfair prejudice, confusing the issues or misleading the jury, and thus is excludable."

A motion to suppress jail communications acknowledges there are situations where, for security and prisoner safety, jail calls can be monitored.

In fact, a suicide note discussed in August 2017 prompted putting Christensen on suicide watch.

But the defense argued some recordings were turned over to investigators without jail officials first listening to them.

It alleged trial attorney James B. Nelson sent a "Happy Hunting" email to his co-counsel in February, making it "perfectly clear that the intent of rummaging through these communications at will was for one purpose and one only — to discover evidence that could be used to ask a jury to sentence Mr. Christensen to the ultimate punishment of death."

The motion almost made several constitutional privacy rights arguments.

A series of other motions contested at length whether the death penalty itself is constitutional.

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