URBANA — Twenty-four more potential jurors were pre-approved Tuesday to participate in the trial of accused kidnapper and killer Brendt Christensen, bringing the total up to 37.
Once about 70 potential jurors are pre-approved, both Christensen's lawyers and prosecutors will be able to strike 20 without cause.
The first 12 to not be struck by either side will make up the jury that decides whether Christensen is guilty, and if so, whether he deserves the death penalty. He is accused of kidnapping and killing visiting University of Illinois scholar Yingying Zhang nearly two years ago.
Ms. Zhang's family watched Tuesday morning from the viewing room in Urbana, where the proceedings were streamed on a closed circuit from the federal courthouse in Peoria.
Her family was accompanied by their lawyer, Urbana attorney Steve Beckett.
"It's just a very difficult experience" for them, Beckett said during a break. "The family thanks everybody who's concerned for them and hopes that they understand how difficult it is."
He said the American criminal-justice system has been confusing for the family.
"They need to understand why things are happening, and so I try to help," Beckett said.
During his questioning of potential jurors, U.S. District Judge James Shadid tried to clear up some confusion.
For instance, he said several had responded that they thought Illinois didn't have the death penalty. But he noted that this is a federal case subject to federal laws, where the death penalty still exists.
He also noted that the indictment against Christensen — who appeared in court Tuesday wearing khakis and an orange button-down shirt — is not evidence, but merely the formal charge against him.
Christensen has pleaded not guilty, so this "raises issues of fact to be tried in this case," Shadid said before noting three principles of law that jurors must agree to:
— That Christensen is presumed innocent throughout the proceedings.
— That the prosecution has the burden of proof, and likewise, that the defense does not have to prove Christensen's innocence.
— That the prosecution has to prove Christensen's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
All the potential jurors have said they could agree to these three principles.
"Our system simply would not work without citizens like yourself" who are willing to come forward and do their civic duty, Shadid said.
The group questioning moved more quickly Tuesday, with Shadid asking fewer questions about the death penalty, leaving that to the individual questioning in his chambers.
He also didn't read the list of about 140 potential witnesses, many of whom he said probably won't testify, instead giving potential jurors a printed copy ahead of time to review.
Two potential jurors said they thought they knew potential witnesses, but it turned out they knew different people with the same names.
One of those said he knew some Christensens from Peoria, but Assistant Federal Defender Elisabeth Pollock said they are not related to Brendt Christensen's family.
On Monday, the group-questioning portion took about an hour during each session, while each of Tuesday's group-questioning sessions finished in about 35 to 40 minutes.
Beckett said it made sense that the lawyers would want to ask jurors more questions individually.
"From experience, individual voir dire is extremely valuable," he said, using the legal phrase for jury questioning. "You have the opportunity to ask questions of a juror where you get a response that's more than 'yes' or 'no.' You get to sort of size up that person and their approach to life and their beliefs."
Retired attorney Diana Lenik of Champaign was watching Tuesday from the Urbana viewing room.
She has no connection to the case but has tried two federal cases that went to a jury trial and was struck by how much questioning was done in the judge's chambers.
"I think the only thing that would stand out is the degree to which Judge Shadid is allowing jury selection to be done with counsel in chambers," Lenik said. "I don't think I ever recall a case where they had so much of that done outside of the open court."
On Tuesday, the lawyers spent about six hours and 15 minutes behind closed doors questioning the 32 individual jurors and asking to strike certain ones, which works out to an average of nearly 12 minutes per potential juror.
The group questioning Tuesday mostly focused on possible hardships jurors would face while serving during a lengthy trial and on their previous jury experiences.
While much of the jury-selection process is a reminder of the seriousness of the civic duty, there were a few moments of levity.
With each group Tuesday, Shadid initially forgot to swear in the potential jurors at the beginning of their group questioning.
After he forgot in the morning, he showed the jurors a note he had in front of him that was supposed to remind him: "Don't forget to swear in the jurors."
When he forgot in the afternoon, the lawyers and clerks chuckled.
And when he asked about previous jury duty, one potential juror said she had served on a case where a juror sued the county because she fell and was injured.
The court was also amused by this, and while Shadid always told potential jurors not to say what the verdict was in cases they had served on, he was curious about this case. But the woman couldn't remember the verdict, as it was a long time ago and they had to put a percentage on how much each party was at fault.
This woman also said she takes care of her grandchildren during the summer while their parents work. She appears to have been one of the jurors excused.
Another potential juror said he had served on four cases before and was the jury foreman twice. He was one of the nine potential jurors pre-approved in the morning.
Two of those were approved over objections, Shadid said.
Others were excused for hardship or because of arguments made by the attorneys, he said.
In the afternoon group, 15 of the 16 potential jurors were pre-approved, though Shadid said a couple of those may have conflicts.
Tuesday's proceedings wrapped up right around 6 p.m., about a half-hour earlier than Monday, and will continue 9 a.m. today.
Shadid hopes to wrap up pre-approval this week and have the 12 jurors and six alternates selected by early next week.
That will be followed by opening statements and the guilt phase, which could last two or three weeks. Then there may be a break for a few days, and if a guilty verdict is returned, that would be followed by a two- to three-week sentencing phase when the same jury decides whether Christensen deserves the death penalty.
Lenik, who said the longest trial she was ever involved in was "maybe 14 or 15 days," said lengthy trials are all-consuming for the lawyers involved.
"It eats you alive," she said, especially if you don't live where the trial is being held. "It takes a great deal of your time, and whatever other things you have going on, you would put on hold, to be able to do what you needed to do."
She said in her experience, jury selection "rarely goes more than a day. I would say maybe three hours would be the average selection, if that."
As for being a juror on a death-penalty case, she said, "If they're taking it seriously — and by all indications, they are — it's a very, very awesome decision to make. I mean, no matter what your opinion is, it would be the most difficult decision you've ever made."