Judge gives accused kidnapper's lawyers more time to determine defense

Judge gives accused kidnapper's lawyers more time to determine defense

URBANA — U.S. District Court Judge James Shadid gave lawyers for accused kidnapper and killer Brendt Christensen more time to find a third mental-health expert.

In a federal court hearing Thursday in Urbana, Shadid said Christensen's lawyers will now have until Dec. 3 to say whether they'll seek a mental-health defense.

That's an extension from the original Sept. 21 due date, but sooner than his lawyers were asking for.

They were hoping simply for a status conference in December to present a timetable for when they'd be able to say whether they're seeking a mental-health defense.

Christensen attended the hearing, wearing a green prison jumpsuit and sporting a lengthy beard.

He chatted briefly with his lawyers before the hearing, but otherwise sat quietly and listened to the hourlong hearing.

He's currently being held in the Livingston County Jail in the disappearence of visiting University of Illinois scholar Yingying Zhang.

The hearing came hours before the UI's dedication of a memorial garden for the 26-year-old woman from China where she was last seen June 9, 2017, at a campus bus stop.

Christensen was arrested June 30, 2017, on a charge of kidnapping, which was later upgraded to kidnapping resulting in death and lying to the FBI.

Ms. Zhang's body has never been found, and she is presumed dead by the FBI.

In January, the Justice Department said it would be seeking the death penalty for Christensen if he is convicted.

While Shadid gave the defense more time to prepare a mental-health defense, he said multiple times that he does not want to delay the trial scheduled for April 2019.

"I don't think this is going to jeopardize the April 3 trial date," Shadid said of the extension, though he did say he may be willing to delay it "a matter of weeks."

Christensen's lawyers said they had identified two mental-health experts that they hope will be able to interview Christensen before December and are working to identify a third.

They don't want to say who the two experts are or what type of expert the third is until they're ready to say whether they're seeking a mental-health defense.

"The government is not entitled to information about our experts" until a mental-health defense is sought, said Julie Brain, one of Christensen's lawyers.

While they said some defendants have obvious mental-health issues, others have issues that need extensive research and examination from different types of experts to determine if there's a mental-health defense.

The defense has "no idea if we have a mental-health case," Brain said, but they "strongly suspect" they do.

She said they've been "banging on doors" looking for the third mental-health expert and said the motion for a delay was not for lack of effort.

An attorney with the prosecutors, James B. Nelson, called the motion for a delay a "last-minute ambush" and said he didn't want the defense to be in control of the trial schedule.