URBANA — Though it seemed possible that pre-approval of potential jurors in the trial of accused kidnapper and killer Brendt Christensen would wrap up Friday, it will go on for another day.
Christensen has been charged with kidnapping resulting in the death of visiting University of Illinois scholar Yingying Zhang and lying to FBI agents about what he was doing the day she was last seen nearly two years ago. He has pleaded not guilty.
U.S. Judge James Shadid and lawyers for the government and Christensen continued questioning potential jurors Friday, pre-approving 10 out of the 29 who appeared, bringing the total to 69 — one short of the goal that Shadid wanted to reach. His plan calls for the 70 who are pre-approved to be narrowed to 12 jurors and six alternates Monday, with opening statements set to begin Wednesday.
That goal was set to make sure lawyers from both sides had enough potential jurors to allow for 20 strikes each. Before adjourning for the day, Shadid asked both sides if they would be comfortable with fewer alternates.
Both sides had no objections, but Shadid said "we'd be taking a risk" and "cutting it really close," since there have been several potential jurors who have come forward with hardships after being pre-approved.
"Even as we've been picking jurors, we're getting some people from past days telling us about hardships they did not initially report," Shadid said. "Same thing happened over the weekend. I just want to point out that I have that reservation about not having a few more potential jurors."
Friday's morning session began with a group of seven women and seven men who expressed hardships ranging from planned family vacations to difficulties with the sluggish start of planting season and the potential burden the trial could have on a rural law office.
One potential juror said she's in the middle of a custody battle and has her first court appearance next week. She's looking to keep custody of her grandson, whose father was killed during a shooting in Peoria in January.
Five of the potential jurors had served on a jury before, including one who served on a Woodford County grand jury and another who served on a murder trial.
After individual questioning, nine of those 14 candidates were pre-approved.
After lunch, 15 more jurors were brought in for questioning in open court. One was dismissed off the bat after providing a doctor's note saying he will be undergoing surgery, recovery and physical therapy over the next several weeks.
One woman said she recognized a name from the lengthy list of potential witnesses: Stewart Inman, who works at the Livingston County Jail where Christensen is being kept. She said she works as a 911 dispatcher in the same building as Inman.
When asked if any potential jurors had formed an opinion as to Christensen's guilt, or as to the punishment he should receive, three people raised their hands. Two said they could not set aside those opinions for the trial.
The third, a woman, said she "made up her mind already" and is set in her opinion as to his guilt as well as to the punishment he should receive.
Four of the potential jurors in the afternoon session had prior experience on juries. To the amazement of many in court, one woman said she was on a jury in a murder trial over 50 years ago. She said she was new to the Peoria area at the time and was "scared to death." She said the trial resulted in a hung jury after one person did not agree with the rest.
Jury selection will continue Monday morning.