UPDATE: 'If we kick it to October, then we do what? Watch Netflix?'

UPDATE: 'If we kick it to October, then we do what? Watch Netflix?'

URBANA — U.S. District Judge James Shadid denied a motion by Brendt Christensen's lawyers to delay the trial of the accused kidnapper and killer from April to October.

While saying he's open to reasonable proposals for a delay, "October is simply out of the question," Shadid told defense attorneys Monday at the federal courthouse in Urbana. "It's ridiculous to me to even think to consider it."

Christensen faces the death penalty if convicted at his trial for allegedly kidnapping and killing visiting University of Illinois scholar Yingying Zhang.

Ms. Zhang, from China, was last seen June 9, 2017, entering Christensen's car near a bus stop on campus. She is presumed dead by the FBI.

Christensen told FBI agents he let Ms. Zhang out a few blocks away, but prosecutors believe he took her back to his Champaign apartment, restrained her, caused her to bleed and tried to clean the scene.

Last week, Christensen's lawyers filed a motion to delay the trial, saying it would be impossible for their mental-health experts to be ready by April due in part to the extensive psychohistory they are compiling.

If their client is convicted, lawyers plan to argue that Christensen has a serious mental illness and therefore doesn't deserve the death penalty.

Shadid said delaying the case to October — more than two years after Ms. Zhang was last seen — was beyond what has happened in other high-profile cases.

The trial of the Boston Marathon bomber, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, began after 20 months, he noted. Oklahoma City federal building bomber Timothy McVeigh was tried after two years and Charleston (S.C.) church shooter Dylann Roof after 18 months, Shadid added.

Julie Brain, the defense attorney handling the mental-health aspect of his case, said Monday that she "struggled mightily" to find a psychiatrist who was experienced, qualified and willing to work on the case.

She said academics and researchers "wouldn't touch this case with a 10-foot pole."

It wasn't until three months ago that a psychiatrist was retained, the defense pointed out.

Then, on Nov. 3, 2018, Brain said, that psychiatrist told an April trial was too soon to be properly prepared for. She apparently told the psychiatrist that an April trial date wouldn't happen.

"I was intending to say I understood," Brain said, not that she didn't think the psychiatrist should prepare for an April trial.

'Bailing you out'

Shadid asked why he wasn't notified about this exchange earlier and said he never gave any indication the trial would be delayed.

"The only thing at issue now is me bailing you out," he said.

Without even hearing the prosecutors' opposition to a delay, he denied the motion, but said he was open to reasonable proposals.

For example, since Christensen's lawyers primarily want a delay to prepare for their mental-health argument — which would come during the penalty phase — Shadid suggested a break between the guilt and penalty phases.

In other death penalty cases, he said there have been breaks of two to four weeks. He asked what would be a reasonable break.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Eugene Miller said the prosecutors would want a shorter break because memories fade. Also, a longer break would increase the chances for improper communications with jurors, Miller said.

Assistant Federal Defender Elisabeth Pollock said, "We don't know."

"I don't know, either," Shadid said.

With jury selection set to begin on April 1, followed by the guilt phase, the penalty phase isn't expected to start until May.

Shadid also expressed frustration over the delay for a request because most of the other pretrial motions have been taken care of.

"If we kick it to October, then we do what?" Shadid asked. "Watch Netflix?"

Canine's credibility

Two of the pending pretrial motions were heard Monday, with Shadid denying a motion to exclude DNA and blood test results taken from Christensen's apartment and saying he would issue a ruling soon on the admissibility of a cadaver-sniffing canine.

The court heard testimony from Alex Rothacker, who trained Sage, a police dog that alerted to the presence of a body in the bathroom of Christensen's apartment.

Rothacker described in detail how dogs are initially trained by his staff, then with the police handlers.

He also described how dogs are trained to spot cadavers, using real body parts from the Lake County coroner.

Sage was trained first in 2010, then took another course on cadaver searches a year later, and one on water cadaver searches in 2012.

In her cross-examination, Pollock questioned whether Sage would have met guidelines set by forensic science experts. She also questioned Rothacker's credentials.

While telling the court he only has a high school degree, Rothacker said he started working with dogs in 1976 under the tutelage of Willy Necker, a trainer for the military in World War II.

Rothacker also cited three Guinness World Records and appearances on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno," Martha Stewart's show and "Live with Regis and Kelly."

One of the dogs he trained was able to jump rope 78 times in a minute, Rothacker said.

Sage's handler, McHenry County Deputy Sheriff Jeremy Bruketta, said in 40 trainings, the canine had found human remains 36 times with no false alerts.

But those feats did not impress Mary Cablk, who works for the Nevada-based Desert Research Institute and is herself a canine trainer.

She testified that she couldn't calculate the reliability of Sage, since he hadn't done true blind tests where there were no human remains to be found.

"I don't believe he's reliable," she said.

She said cadaver-sniffing dogs should follow the expert guidelines, which recommend 16 hours of cadaver training each month, and that police dogs should focus on being able to detect one thing.

She also said indoor human-remain searching can be tricky, as dogs will alert to places where there is normally blood, such as bathrooms or kitchens.

It's particularly common for dogs to alert when in bathrooms because of blood from menstruation or shaving accidents, Cablk said, along with the frequent presence of medication.

Besides that, she said being able to detect the residual effects of human remains is a specialized discipline.

Test results stay in

While wrapping up, Pollock asked Cablk if, hypothetically, blood was in multiple rooms of an apartment, the dog would alert to all the locations of the blood.

Cablk said she would expect the dog to do so, and that bleach doesn't affect the dog's ability to detect an odor.

That hypothetical isn't so hypothetical.

In this case, the defense has said blood was possibly found in both Christensen's bedroom and bathroom, but that Sage only alerted in the bathroom. And prosecutors have said they believe Christensen took steps to clean his apartment.

Earlier Monday, Shadid denied a motion by Christensen's lawyers to exclude DNA and blood test results from Christensen's apartment.

After questioning of an FBI laboratory expert, Shadid decided the test results meet the threshold for admissibility.

Christensen's lawyers had been trying to exclude the results, which court filings have indicated show blood and Ms. Zhang's DNA at various places in Christensen's apartment.

In a response last week to the defense's motion, prosecutors said that evidence of handprint-shaped bloodstains were found in his apartment.

In the defense's original motion last August, they said the possible presence of blood was found in his bedroom and bathroom.

Further testing wasn't able to confirm blood on the mattress, bathroom sink trap and bedroom wall and floor, but it was able to confirm blood found on a piece of carpet and a piece of baseboard.

At Monday's hearing, Jerrilyn Conway, who works for the FBI lab in Quantico, Va., described how DNA and blood are tested.

Her lab uses a product called STRmix, which compares the lengths of about two dozen different parts of a DNA sample and produces a "likelihood ratio," which measures how likely it is that the sample from the apartment matches a known sample from Ms. Zhang.

In Ms. Zhang's case, the likelihood ratio ranged from 1.4 quintillion to 97 octillion, according to prosecutors.

The FBI has been using STRmix since 2015.

Science of samples

Pollock argued that at least 50 of the studies lending credibility to STRmix were authored by one of the producers of the test.

She also argued that the FBI should have used a newer DNA testing method that looks at the actual sequence of the DNA, not just the length of certain parts.

And she said the defense wasn't able to look at the source code for how STRmix reaches its likelihood ratio.

"When someone's life is at stake, you want to make sure the DNA (test) is accurate," Pollock said.

Regarding the blood, Conway said the initial test is very sensitive and the stain will turn pink even if there's very little sample present.

But the sample can turn pink with a number of different substances, including horseradish and some cleaning supplies, so a confirmatory test for blood is also done.

With that test, the sample will create orange crystals only if blood is present.

However, Conway said, if the confirmatory test doesn't come back positive, it doesn't mean blood wasn't present, just that it couldn't be confirmed.

While Pollock argued that unconfirmed tests would prejudice the trial jury, Miller said it would be unfairly prejudicial to the prosecution to not let Conway testify about the science behind the tests.

After some back and forth, Shadid ruled in the prosecution's favor, allowing the blood and DNA test results to be used at trial.

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