Accused kidnapper's lawyers seek more time for mental-health analyses

Accused kidnapper's lawyers seek more time for mental-health analyses

URBANA — A request by attorneys for accused kidnapper and murderer Brendt Christensen for more time to decide if they'll present a mental-health defense illustrates what a labor-intensive process they are involved in.

In a 30-page motion filed Friday, the four-attorney defense team asked Judge James Shadid for a hearing on their request. If granted, it will likely mean the trial now set to begin April 3, 2019, would have to be pushed back.

Christensen, 29, has marked two birthdays behind bars since his arrest almost 15 months ago in the disappearance of visiting University of Illinois scholar Yingying Zhang.

The 26-year-old woman from China was last seen June 9, 2017, at a campus bus stop. Her body has never been found.

Christensen was arrested on his birthday — June 30, 2017 — on a kidnapping charge. Thirteen weeks later, a federal grand jury indicted him on additional charges of kidnapping resulting in death and lying to the FBI.

The former charge put Christensen in the crosshairs for the death penalty.

Federal public defenders were appointed just over a year ago after private lawyers withdrew from representing Christensen when the specter of the death penalty was raised, saying they did not have the resources to defend him.

In Friday's motion, the federal defenders said they spent the first five months of the year working on Christensen's behalf trying to keep the government from seeking the death penalty while preparing for trial "under a wholly unrealistic and unreasonable schedule."

The government announced in January that it would seek the death penalty.

In the seven months since, the defense team said it has been working "diligently" to piece together his social history, so they can identify the appropriate mental-health experts who are willing and available to evaluate him.

Their motion outlined seven steps related to that process the lawyers must complete before deciding if they intend to introduce evidence of Christensen's mental condition during either the guilt phase of his trial or the penalty phase.

As of Friday, they were about halfway there, having pulled together enough information on Christensen and numerous family members from "several different generations" to conclude they need to consult "at least three types of mental-health experts."

Their work has involved interviews with "many different witnesses who are located in at least six different states and gathering records from numerous sources in a large number of different jurisdictions."

Based on what they learned, they have hired two of the three experts, but neither has seen Christensen yet. One is scheduled to see him in October and the other in October or November. The lawyers said they hope to know by December when those two will be able to give their opinions.

By December, they added, the third expert will have been hired and should be able to give them a timetable for getting Christensen evaluated and offering an opinion.

They asked Shadid to set a status conference in December for the purpose of giving them a new deadline by which they can inform the government of their decision on whether they will be presenting evidence of Christensen's mental condition.

Trying to illustrate why it takes so long, the lawyers quoted from American Bar Association guidelines that say the those deciding on imposing a death sentence have to consider anything in a defendant's life that could spare him the ultimate punishment.

The guidelines say it's up to his lawyers to dig that up through "unparalleled investigation into personal and family history," including medical, family, social, educational, employment, criminal history and military service:

"A multigenerational investigation extending as far as possible vertically and horizontally frequently discloses significant patterns of family dysfunction and may help establish or strengthen a diagnosis or underscore the hereditary nature of a particular impairment.

"At least in the case of the client, this begins with the moment of conception."

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