PEORIA — U.S. District Judge James Shadid didn't act on motions to dismiss the case against accused kidnapper and killer Brendt Christensen, but did indicate Friday that he'd rule against at least one part of them.
Christensen, his attorneys and prosecutors met for three hours Friday morning at the federal courthouse in Peoria to argue whether the case should be tried in state or federal court.
While Shadid said he was still reviewing the defense's argument that the car Christensen used isn't an instrument of interstate commerce under federal jurisdiction, he said a cellphone definitely is.
And he said hearings Monday and Tuesday in Urbana will go on as scheduled as he weighs the defense's argument that the Federal Death Penalty Act is being unconstitutionally used in this case due to the Tenth Amendment, which says that powers not granted to the federal government are reserved for the states.
Christensen, who did not speak during the pretrial hearing, wore a green prison jumpsuit and had short hair and a shaven face.
He is accused of kidnapping and killing Yingying Zhang, a visiting UI scholar from China who was last seen entering his car June 9, 2017.
Christensen said he dropped off Ms. Zhang a few blocks away. He was arrested June 30, 2017, on a kidnapping charge. Thirteen weeks later, a federal grand jury indicted him on additional charges of kidnapping resulting in death and lying to the FBI.
In January, the government said it would seek the death penalty against Christensen, an option not available at the state level in Illinois.
'The wrong courtroom'
Christensen's attorneys have argued that the cellphone wasn't used to commit the alleged crime and that the car didn't cross state borders.
On Friday, one of his lawyers, Robert Tucker, claimed that the main reason federal prosecutors wanted this case was to seek the death penalty.
"Not that they said that out and out," Tucker said, but he indicated he had gathered that from discussions with prosecutors.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Eugene Miller strongly disagreed, and at one point, lawyers entered the judge's chambers to discuss the matter.
"We know that not to be true," Miller said, adding that there are various reasons it was in the federal government's interest to take the case, including that the FBI was involved early on and that it involved a Chinese national.
Beyond that, he said the federal laws about kidnapping clearly allow for federal jurisdiction when an instrument of interstate commerce is used.
Miller noted that the law originally included the phrase "instruments in interstate commerce," but was updated in 2006 to "instruments of interstate commerce." He said this showed that Congress wanted to include cars, whether or not they crossed state borders.
But Tucker argued that cars aren't instruments of interstate commerce that Congress can regulate unless they're used for, or to affect, commerce.
"This case is simply in the wrong courtroom," Tucker said.
Tucker also argued on similar grounds that the Federal Death Penalty Act is being unconstitutionally used in this case.
He said the state's interests outweigh the federal government's, especially since Illinois has abolished the death penalty.
Tucker said that indicated the state's interest in protecting the lives of its citizens, along with its interest in not putting Illinois citizens through the jury process in a death-penalty case.
He also said a capital case in Illinois would exclude Illinois citizens opposed to the death penalty from serving on a jury.
Miller disagreed that the state's interests outweigh the federal government's, noting that Tucker's arguments for the state's interest in taking the case are all arguments in Christensen's interest, not Ms. Zhang's.
Besides that, Miller said the balancing of interests doesn't apply because the federal government has supremacy over the states.
He argued that if Congress has the power to criminalize an act, it certainly has the power to set the punishment.
Accused's mental health
Also at Friday's hearing, Shadid and the attorneys discussed how to handle a rebuttal examination of Christensen's mental health.
His lawyers plan to argue he has a psychological disorder on the spectrum of schizophrenia in an attempt to avoid the death penalty if he's convicted.
They don't plan to bring up his mental health during the initial guilt phase of the trial, only during the penalty phase.
Prosecutors get to have an expert examine Christensen, but his lawyers want to limit that examination to determining whether the diagnosis is accurate.
They also want the rebuttal examination to happen only after Christensen is convicted, if he is, citing a case in which that only delayed the sentencing by eight days.
Prosecutors said they expect a longer delay, considering his attorneys were given several months to find experts to examine Christensen.
They instead want an expert to examine Christensen in January, with the results sealed until after the guilt phase of Christensen's trial, which is scheduled to begin in April.
The trial is expected to take at least five weeks.
More motions next week
Shadid gave Christensen's attorneys until Jan. 4 to respond to prosecutors in writing and planned to give more guidance next week on the schedule leading up to the trial.
The pretrial hearings continue Monday, Tuesday and possibly Wednesday to consider motions by Christensen's lawyers to suppress evidence collected at his apartment, statements he gave to the FBI and recordings made by his girlfriend while wearing a wire.
In the recordings, prosecutors have alleged Christensen explained the "characteristics of an ideal victim" and picked out other potential victims while attending a vigil for Ms. Zhang.
He is allegedly heard on another recording describing how he kidnapped Ms. Zhang and how she fought and resisted when she was brought to his apartment.
Earlier this year, Christensen's lawyers argued that his girlfriend did not voluntarily consent to wear a wire, though prosecutors have pointed to her signed consent forms.
Christensen's lawyers have also argued that evidence taken from his apartment was illegally seized and that statements he gave to the FBI were given after he asked to speak with a lawyer.
Prosecutors have countered that the search was legal because Christensen's wife voluntarily consented to the search and Christensen himself waived his rights multiple times.
They're also scheduled next week to discuss motions to suppress jail communications and statements from a jail-cell informant.