Christensen trial: Judge rejects motions to suppress evidence, dismiss case

Christensen trial: Judge rejects motions to suppress evidence, dismiss case

URBANA — Attorneys for accused kidnapper and killer Brendt Christensen have lost a handful of bids to suppress evidence in the federal death-penalty case against the former University of Illinois graduate student.

On Monday, U.S. District Court Judge James Shadid denied six motions made by the defense at hearings last month in Peoria and Urbana.

Christensen is accused of kidnapping and killing Yingying Zhang, a visiting UI scholar from China who was last seen on June 9, 2017, entering his car near a bus stop on campus. Christensen was arrested June 30 and is due to stand trial in April in Peoria.

Leading up to then, federal public defenders appointed to represent Christensen have made various motions to dismiss the case and suppress certain evidence and testimony.

At last month's hearings, FBI agents' testimony directly contradicted that of Christensen's then-wife, Michelle Zortman. While the agents described an orderly search of her apartment the night of June 14 after obtaining consent, Zortman testified that she was startled and intimidated by agents who conducted a search before she agreed to it.

Shadid sided with the FBI in rulings made public Monday.

"If Defendant's contentions and Ms. Zortman's testimony were accurate, they would indeed point toward involuntariness," the judge wrote. "However, six FBI agents testified credibly that they entered the apartment at Defendant's invitation, requested that Ms. Zortman put on clothes, and asked her consent to search when only two agents remained in the apartment and no search was yet underway.

"Taking into account the totality of the circumstances, Ms. Zortman's consent to the search of the shared apartment was voluntary. Agents lawfully conducted the search, and evidence seized as a result of the search should not be excluded."

Shadid also denied motions to suppress:

— Secret recordings of Christensen made by his girlfriend, at the direction of federal agents.

While Christensen's lawyers argued their client's girlfriend was unable to consent because she was mentally unstable, Shadid said her consent form and ongoing communications with an FBI agent show the consent was voluntary.

She "may have been nervous, even terrified, about secretly recording her boyfriend, wondering whether he might be a violent criminal, but the record shows she was determined to do just that," Shadid said.

— Other statements Christensen made to law enforcement, his girlfriend and his wife.

Christensen's attorneys argued that as soon as he invoked his right to counsel on June 15, law enforcement should have backed off for 14 days, citing a 2010 Supreme Court decision as their basis.

But Shadid said that doesn't apply when the suspect re-initiates contact.

"There is sufficient evidence that Defendant's decision to contact law enforcement came from himself, not through law enforcement coercion," Shadid wrote. "He called Special Agent Katherine Tenaglia more than once in an attempt to set up a meeting, telling (the informant) 'I want to cooperate.'

"When he finally reached Special Agent Tenaglia, he is on tape saying 'I just want to help you clear this all up.'"

— Christensen's communications while in jail.

His attorneys said Christensen's right to privacy was violated when his calls were recorded by the Macon and Livingston county jails and handed over to prosecutors.

But Shadid said there's little privacy expected in a jail, especially when calls are preceded by a message that the call is being recorded.

— Shadid also denied a defense motion to declare the federal death penalty unconstitutional, as well as a motion to dismiss the case for lack of federal jurisdiction.

"Both automobiles and cell phones qualify as instrumentalities of interstate commerce," he wrote, and therefore qualify the case for federal jurisdiction, even if they're only used within one state. Whether those were used to commit the alleged crime is a matter for the trial, Shadid said.