Court casting wide net for jury in Christensen trial

Court casting wide net for jury in Christensen trial

PEORIA — A thousand questionnaires have been sent out this month to potential jurors in the trial of accused kidnapper and killer Brendt Christensen, U.S. District Judge James Shadid said Thursday at a hearing in Peoria.

Two hundred people have already responded, he said, and 27 have already been excused for reasons like pregnancy, age, care-giving duties, disabilities and planned vacations.

But he expects that at the current pace, there will be a large enough pool to begin jury selection June 3.

At Wednesday's hearing, prosecutors and defense attorneys debated about how jury selection should go, such as whether potential jurors should be questioned individually or in a group, whether visual aides will be allowed, and whether hypothetical questions about the case should be allowed.

In this case, Christensen is accused by prosecutors of kidnapping visiting University of Illinois scholar Yingying Zhang near a bus stop on campus, bringing her back to his apartment and killing her.

Her body has never been found, but she is presumed dead by the FBI, and if convicted, Christensen faces the death penalty at his trial.

He has pleaded not guilty and told the FBI he let her out a few blocks away from where he picked her up.

Shadid didn't issue a formal ruling Thursday, but said he plans to send the attorneys information on each of the potential jurors by March 30.

They're then supposed to confer with each other and submit questions to him that they want to ask the potential jurors.

Once jury selection begins, "We'll do as much as we can in open court," but he said there will be a point when questions will have to be asked individually.

Christensen's lawyers want to question potential jurors individually to avoid contaminating the jury pool and encourage candid answers.

And Shadid said he would be open to case-specific questions if worded properly.

Defense attorney Matthew Rubenstein said his team wants to ask case-specific questions to better suss out each juror's death-penalty views on issues related to this case.

He was concerned that less specific questions may not elicit candid answers from those with extreme views that would disqualify them.

"You don't know that yet," Shadid responded. "You haven't seen the answers. You might be surprised."

Jurors have to be willing to consider the death penalty, as well as a life sentence, and in addition to asking Shadid to strike a juror for cause, each side is allowed to strike 20 jurors without cause.

Eventually, 12 jurors need to be selected, along with six alternates.

Shadid also said he would be open to some sort of visual aide explaining the trial process and the jury's role in a capital case.

It's unclear how long jury selection might take, but Shadid said that if it wraps up in less than two weeks, he could see the guilt phase of the trial wrapping up by the Fourth of July break. If a sentencing phase is necessary, he said that could happen after the break.

During the sentencing phase, Christensen's lawyers plan to argue that he has a severe mental health illness, to avoid the death penalty.

At Thursday's hearing, they argued that prosecutors' rebuttal mental health examination of Christensen shouldn't be recorded.

Prosecutor James Nelson argued they only want it recorded to ensure accuracy, but defense attorney Julie Brain said that if it's played at trial, it could "show up on CNN," and the potential of this could stifle the rebuttal examination in the first place.

Nelson insisted prosecutors don't plan to do this.

Shadid didn't rule Thursday on this particular issue.