175 potential jurors for Christensen trial eliminated; pool now at 476

175 potential jurors for Christensen trial eliminated; pool now at 476

PEORIA — After both sides agreed that 175 potential jurors were ineligible to try the death-penalty case against accused kidnapper and killer Brendt Christensen, another 476 remain in the jury pool.

In three weeks, the potential jurors will be brought into the federal courthouse in Peoria in groups of 20 each morning and afternoon. There, they'll face questioning as a group from U.S. District Judge James Shadid.

Shadid acknowledged Monday at a pretrial conference in Peoria that 40 per day "may be ambitious" and said that number may have to be adjusted. But he was "cautiously optimistic" that jury selection will go quicker than expected.

Christensen's attorneys were skeptical about this, expecting to ask many follow-up questions, including about what individual jurors have heard about the case.

Defense attorney Robert Tucker noted the extensive publicity surrounding the case, which "involves kidnapping, murder and sexual assault."

Christensen has been charged with kidnapping resulting in the death of visiting University of Illinois scholar Yingying Zhang.

Ms. Zhang was last seen nearly two years ago, on June 9, 2017, entering Christensen's car near a campus bus stop.

Christensen told the FBI he let her out a few blocks away and has pleaded not guilty.

The FBI presumes Ms. Zhang is dead, though her body hasn't been located.

Some potential jurors have been "quite candid in their feeling that Christensen is guilty" and have "expressed a bias in culpability and punishment issues," defense attorney Matthew Rubenstein said Monday.

Eventually, they'll need to get to a list of 70 potential jurors, from which each side will be able to strike 23 without having to give a reason.

In a capital case, jurors need to be open both to sentencing someone to death, as well as to life in prison, so attorneys for both sides will be looking for bias in either direction.

From the remaining group, once 12 are selected for the jury and six as alternates, the government will be able to present its case against Christensen.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Eugene Miller said he expects the government's case to last about two-and-a-half weeks, though possibly shorter.

Tucker said he couldn't estimate how long the cross-examination will take, as Shadid hasn't yet ruled on some motions regarding what can be brought up during the trial.

If Christensen is found guilty, the trial will enter the sentencing, or penalty, phase, where jurors will hear arguments about why he should or should not receive the death penalty.

To be sentenced to death, the jury will need to reach a unanimous decision.

To explain this process, Rubenstein proposed two visual aids, one listing each juror's responsibilities and another going through the various steps of the two phases.

The visual aids proposed by Rubenstein emphasize jurors' moral responsibility in making the decision to sentence someone to death, as one dissenter can spare someone's life.

"This man's life is in their hands," Rubenstein said. "Some jurors don't want that responsibility."

Prosecutor James Nelson said he'd be open to visual aids, but objected to certain statements about them as one-sided or incomplete.

He noted that the jury's decision isn't necessarily final, as it could be overturned on appeal or the sentence could be commuted.

Shadid said he liked the idea of having a visual aid, and the defense agreed to submit a revised visual aid to prosecutors by the end of the week.

If they aren't able to agree, both sides will submit what they want, and Shadid will decide what to use.

Jury selection is set to begin June 3.

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