Christensen's lawyers say he's abandoning mental-health defense

Christensen's lawyers say he's abandoning mental-health defense

PEORIA — Accused kidnapper and killer Brendt Christensen is abandoning his mental-health defense, his lawyers said Friday.

If he is convicted at his trial in June of kidnapping resulting in the death of visiting University of Illinois scholar Yingying Zhang in June 2017, his lawyers had been planning to argue that Christensen has a severe mental illness on the spectrum of schizophrenia or other psychotic disorders in an attempt to avoid the death penalty.

But in a filing Friday, they said "Christensen decided to formally withdraw" his mental-health defense notice Thursday.

No reason was given, but his lawyers said they notified prosecutors "as soon as possible and explained that Mr. Christensen will not be speaking to the government's mental-health experts next week."

The mental-health exams were scheduled to begin Monday.

Christensen withdrew his mental-health defense after U.S. District Judge James Shadid denied this week a number of restrictions his lawyers wanted to place on the examinations by the government's mental-health experts.

For example, Christensen's lawyers asked that the expert not question him about the facts of the crimes he's charged with, since their experts didn't ask about that.

"For a variety of reasons, Mr. Christensen instructed his own experts not to question him about the facts and circumstances of the crimes with which he is charged," his lawyers wrote. "He likely will use evidence of his 'long-standing condition to argue that he was operating with impaired capacity on the day of the offense.'"

But Shadid denied this motion.

"In the event that defense experts argue Defendant suffered from impaired capacity on the day of the offense, Defendant will have put the matter of his mental state during that time into dispute," he wrote Wednesday. "His own decision not to allow defense experts to question him on the offense does not mean that the United States receives an unfair advantage by asking questions that are necessary to confirm or rebut Defendant's argument."

Shadid also denied the defense's request to restrict the expert from questioning Christensen about ADHD, as they said it wasn't a "differential diagnosis for Schizophrenia Spectrum Disorder," after prosecutors provided a PDF of the diagnostic manual indicating it was a differential diagnosis and underlining the part that mentions ADHD.

"The Court finds there can be little dispute about this," he wrote Thursday. "As such, in addition to denying Defendant's request, the Court directs Defendant to provide an explanation of the basis for his statement."

Urbana attorney Steve Beckett, who is representing Ms. Zhang's family, said he was shocked by the withdrawal of the mental-health defense.

"I can sort of see a strategy," he said. "It also could be the client saying, 'I'm not going to talk to that guy.' It's very puzzling."

Beckett said Christensen's decision to withdraw the mental-health defense should mean it won't be brought up during trial.

It was never going to be part of the guilt phase, but the defense had been planning to use Christensen's mental health to avoid the death penalty during the sentencing phase.

"I don't think that the prosecution can use it, certainly not at the guilt phase," Beckett said. "If it's not presented (by the defense), then the government doesn't get to present it either. In my view, there would be no discussion about expert testimony about ... any diagnosed conditions."

Christensen's lawyers said in December that they would be seeking a mental-health defense. The trial was initially scheduled to start in April, but because they weren't able to find an expert who would be able to testify at that time, it was pushed to June.

Later Friday, prosecutors filed a "motion for clarification" about the defense's notice asking whether they'll still be able to have their mental-health expert examine Christensen next week and questioning whether it was a ploy to further delay the trial.

"The United States is aware of a similar case in which the defendant refused to be examined by the United States' experts, and then 'changed his mind' and asked the Court for a continuance so that he could submit to such an examination and raise a mental health defense at trial," prosecutors wrote.

That attempt failed, prosecutors said, though an appellate court indicated that it may have been successful if the defendant refused to be examined based on his attorney's advice.

So prosecutors said they wanted to confirm who made the decision to withdraw the mental-health defense.

"The United States is concerned ... that the existing record is insufficient to support a determination that the defendant has knowingly and voluntarily decided not to present such evidence after considering all of the consequences of that decision," they wrote. "The United States requests that the Court clarify the defendant's understanding of these issues through a colloquy in open court."

They also said the government expert's exam could still go on as scheduled without harming Christensen, as the results wouldn't be disclosed to prosecutors until the penalty phase, and only if Christensen sought a mental-health defense.

Prosecutors are also asking that any mental-health evidence be barred from trial.

Not only do they argue that experts who examined Christensen should be barred, they also say that any testimony that implies he has a mental-health condition should be barred.

This would include, they argue, the experts who were going to testify about Christensen's visits to the UI Counseling Center.

The defense had been planning to use this expert during the sentencing phase of the trial to argue that the UI Counseling Center did not give adequate follow-up care after Christensen visited in March 2017 and described homicidal and suicidal thoughts.

Three months later, Ms. Zhang was last seen June 9, 2017, entering Christensen's car near a bus stop on campus.

Christensen told the FBI he let her out a few blocks away, while prosecutors believe he took her back to his apartment, where FBI biologists are expected to testify that Ms. Zhang's blood and DNA were found.

She is presumed dead by the FBI, though her body hasn't been located.

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