Jury of seven men, five women to decide Christensen's fate

Jury of seven men, five women to decide Christensen's fate

URBANA — Seven men and five women will decide the fate of Brendt Christensen, who has been charged with the 2017 kidnapping and killing of visiting University of Illinois scholar Yingying Zhang.

On Tuesday morning at the federal courthouse in Peoria, the jurors were selected from a pool of 70 that was built up over six days of questioning. Four men and two women were also selected as alternate jurors for a trial that's scheduled to start with opening statements about 9 this morning.

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

She had arrived two months earlier from China and was on her way to look at a new apartment.

Christensen told the FBI he let Ms. Zhang out a few blocks away. The FBI never located her body, but she is presumed dead.

The prosecution said it may take about eight days to make its case. The defense's turn would follow, then closing statements and jury deliberations.

Judge Jim Shadid said the first phase of the trial may wrap up June 21 or 24. If the jury reaches a guilty verdict, the court would likely take a break until after the July 4 week, followed by the two- to three-week sentencing phase, when the jury would decide whether Christensen deserves the death penalty or life in prison.

On Tuesday, attorneys for each side met with Shadid in a "sidebar," out of earshot of the audience, to narrow the jury pool from 70 to 12.

After two jurors were immediately excused for hardship, lawyers for both sides and their jury consultants huddled around Shadid and his clerks for about an hour as they made their "peremptory" strikes, for which they don't need to cite a reason.

Each side got 20 such strikes, alternating turns. The first 12 jurors not stricken by either side made up the jury. The process continued until six alternates were selected, at which point Shadid seated the jury, reading out their participant numbers and directing them to the two rows of seating on the left-hand side of the courtroom.

More than 1,000 people in the Peoria division of the Central District of Illinois received a lengthy questionnaire to fill out prior to jury selection. Many were immediately rejected for hardships or strong views about Christensen's guilt or the death penalty.

Lawyers agreed that 477 of them could move forward in the process, and, last week, groups of about 16 were brought in each morning and afternoon for further questioning.

They were asked if they knew any of the potential witnesses, if they had served on a jury before and what hardships they faced. Then, they were questioned individually in the judge's chambers about their views on the death penalty and other sensitive issues.

A pool of 70 jurors was reached Monday morning. That group was narrowed to 12 and six alternates Tuesday.

Also Tuesday, Assistant Federal Defender Elisabeth Pollock brought up the civil suit filed last week by the estate of Ms. Zhang alleging battery by Christensen and negligence by two employees of the UI Counseling Center.

According to court documents, Christensen visited the counseling center three months before Ms. Zhang was last seen and described an "irrational interest in serial killers," "had thoughts of committing a murder" and purchased items to do so, only to return them later.

He later told a counselor he "had recently thought about murder 'in an analytical fashion,' particularly ruminating about how one might go about killing a person and 'get away with it.' He also admitted to having purchased items that could be used in the 'transport and disposal' of a body, but said he had disposed of these items."

Pollock said the defense had received new "discovery," or evidence, related to the counseling center and would be filing a motion about issues the civil suit raises in the criminal case.

In a bid to avoid the death penalty, the defense has been planning to call an expert during the sentencing phase to argue that the counseling center did not provide adequate care to Christensen, but what exactly that expert can say has been tied up in pretrial motions since Christensen dropped his mental-health defense in April. Later Tuesday, the prosecution filed a motion asking to exclude evidence related to the counseling center's standard of care or Christensen's mental-health diagnosis.

The prosecution also said it received an email late Monday from the defense, stating that "they intend to seek reconsideration of the court's order that 'the court's prior ruling that the civil liability of the U of I is not relevant and therefore inadmissible[,]' and that they intend to ask for 'a brief continuance to allow us to brief the issue.'"

It's unclear if a continuance would be granted. As of late Tuesday, opening statements were still scheduled to begin at 9 a.m. today, followed by witness testimony from the prosecution.

If you go

The trial of Brendt Christensen will take place at the federal courthouse in Peoria with a live closed-circuit stream to a viewing room at the Urbana courthouse. Like any trial, the proceedings are open to the public, whether you are involved in the case or not. Here's what you need to know if you go:

Proceedings will generally run Monday through Friday beginning at 9 a.m., with a short midmorning break, hourlong lunch break and short midafternoon break before ending the day about 5 p.m.

The Peoria courthouse will open at 8 a.m., and the actual courtroom will open at 8:30 a.m.

Some seating is reserved for Yingying Zhang's family and the media. The remaining seating is on a first-come, first-served basis.

The Urbana viewing room will open at 8:30 a.m. In it, two large TVs are set up with footage from Peoria.

In both Peoria and Urbana, guests must show a government-issued photo ID and go through security. No electronics, cameras or recording equipment are allowed inside.

Guests can't wear any clothes that carry a message or symbol related to the case, nor can they make gestures toward the jury or witnesses.