UI scholar’s family to judge: Keep accused kidnapper's trial in Urbana

UI scholar’s family to judge: Keep accused kidnapper's trial in Urbana

URBANA — In court motions filed this week, prosecutors and the family of missing visiting scholar Yingying Zhang said they want the trial of her alleged kidnapper and killer, Brendt Christensen, to remain in Urbana.

In September, his lawyers asked that the trial be moved to Peoria, citing extensive media coverage, negative online comments and a poll showing 76.5 percent of respondents in the Urbana area were familiar with the case, more than the 59 percent of respondents in the Peoria area.

In support of their motion, prosecutors provided a statement from the family of Ms. Zhang, the Chinese woman last seen June 9, 2017, entering Christensen's car near a bus stop on campus.

While he maintains he let her out a few blocks away, he was arrested June 30, 2017, for her kidnapping.

That charge was later upgraded to kidnapping resulting in death, even though her body has not yet been found.

"We strongly hope the venue of the case against her alleged killer remains in the federal court in Urbana," the family said. "This would be most convenient for us, provide us with the most emotional support, and keep us close to the place our daughter was last seen alive."

Her family said they formed a bond with the local Chinese community, which provided transportation, "delicious food and warm clothes to stay comfortable during Illinois' cooler weather."

"While we understand that Peoria is a nice place, it would not be able to provide us with the amazing support we have received in Urbana-Champaign," the family wrote.

Prosecutors also said cases with more media coverage had trials held where the crime occurred, such as the trial of the Boston Marathon bombers and of the man who killed nine people at a church in Charleston, S.C.

"Like the Boston Marathon bombing, the Charleston church shooting and subsequent prosecution generated extensive local, national, and international press coverage," U.S. Attorney John Childress wrote. "Despite this coverage, the parties were able to find impartial jurors in Charleston, and the trial remained there."

They also said a change of venue should be considered closer to the trial date of April 3, 2019, and argued that negative online comments and a poll paid for by the defense team don't warrant moving the trial.

"Factually correct and non-inflammatory press reports, comments on social media, and a bought-and-paid-for survey do not overcome the constitutional command and public interest in" a jury trial "in the District and Division where the crimes were committed," Childress wrote.

Prosecutors also argued that a trial in Peoria would be inconvenient for witnesses, most of whom live in Champaign County.

"This is likely to be a lengthy trial, and forcing all of the witnesses to travel and wait to testify while far from home will cause inconvenience for all of them, and significant additional expense for the government," Childress wrote.

Also this week, prosecutors filed responses to more than two dozen motions filed by the defense in August.

Prosecutors asked for more time to respond to motions questioning the reliability of the government's body-sniffing dog and its blood and DNA experts.

In August, Christensen's lawyers said that a police dog alerted to the presence of a body in the bathroom of Christensen's apartment, and that experts would be testifying that Ms. Zhang's DNA and blood were found in the apartment.

Prosecutors said Christensen's lawyers haven't provided their experts' testimony, so they can't yet respond.

Prosecutors also defended their use of statements Christensen gave to the FBI.

While his lawyers say he invoked his right to counsel, prosecutors say Christensen agreed to waive his rights multiple times and reached out to the FBI on one occasion.

After the FBI came to his apartment to search his car the night of June 14, Christensen agreed to be interviewed at the FBI office in Champaign. Then, on June 17, he called an FBI agent in a conversation picked up in a surreptitious recording by his girlfriend.

"I want to. I don't, but I will. I'm trying to clear my name. Just, I want to cooperate. I want to get this over with," Christensen told his girlfriend before calling the FBI agent and setting up a meeting, according to the prosecutors.

According to his lawyers, Christensen had an open marriage with his wife, who recently filed for divorce.

Also this week, prosecutors said they fairly obtained statements from an informant at the Macon County Jail where Christensen was held in 2017.

While the defense argued the informant was acting under the direction of law enforcement, prosecutors said the informant happened to be placed next to Christensen, struck up a relationship and later approached law enforcement about the statements Christensen made.

He allegedly told the informant "that he lured Ms. Zhang into his car by showing her a badge and telling her he was a police officer," prosecutors wrote.

Prosecutors also filed motions defending the constitutionality of the federal death penalty, which Christensen faces if convicted.