CHAMPAIGN — Prosecutors plan to use accused kidnapper and killer Brendt Christensen's own voice against him at trial, but there appears to be some dispute about what exactly he said into the wire his girlfriend was wearing.
To remedy this, Assistant U.S. Attorney Eugene Miller asked U.S. District Judge James Shadid on Thursday if the court could listen to the recordings with headphones during the trial to avoid the poor acoustics in the courtroom.
Shadid said he would consider it.
Christensen, who again wore a blue button-down shirt to court, has been charged with kidnapping resulting in the death of visiting University of Illinois scholar Yingying Zhang nearly two years ago. He has pleaded not guilty.
While investigators never found Ms. Zhang's body, prosecutors have alleged he can be heard describing how he kidnapped her, how she "fought and resisted against him" and how he restrained her.
At previous pretrial hearings when some wire recordings were played, they were difficult to hear, and last week, Christensen's lawyers filed a sealed motion asking for the court to rule on the accuracy of the transcripts of the covert recordings.
Earlier this week, that motion was granted, though the contents of the motion are still sealed, and the motion was granted with an unspecified "limiting instruction."
Limiting instructions tell the jury to consider the evidence only for specific purposes and not for others or to only consider part of the evidence.
Christensen's girlfriend recorded Christensen eight times in the two weeks leading up to his arrest June 30, 2017, according to the prosecution's exhibit list.
The day before, Christensen — who was married and in an open relationship — and his girlfriend attended a campus vigil to raise awareness for the search for Ms. Zhang.
During the vigil, his girlfriend emailed an FBI agent to let him know she might have recorded something substantial, the FBI agent testified in December.
While attending the vigil, Christensen allegedly explained the "characteristics of an ideal victim" and picked out other potential victims, prosecutors said at Christensen's detention hearing days after he was arrested.
Besides the issue of the recordings, the court continued questioning potential jurors Thursday, pre-approving 13 of the 31 who appeared.
One was approved over an objection, the judge said, but he did not elaborate.
And another was approved, but has a vacation scheduled that Shadid said might coincide with the trial and will be addressed Monday.
So far, 58 potential jurors have been pre-approved.
Shadid hoped to reach 70 pre-approved jurors today and narrow that to 12 jurors and six alternates Monday before opening statements Wednesday.
The jury questioning proceeded much as it has the past few days, with potential jurors brought in each morning and afternoon for group questioning, followed by individual questions in the judge's chambers about their views on the death penalty and other issues.
The potential jurors described various hardships that could make it difficult for them to serve on a jury for several weeks.
Three in the morning had family vacations planned — to Alabama, Florida and the Ozarks.
One said she had two small kids to take care of, a 9-year-old and a 7-year-old who "thinks she's 27."
Shadid suggested that he knew someone who would be a good baby-sitter for them, explaining that the potential juror's mother baby-sat him when he was little.
This potential juror, who is the only employee where she works and whose husband works second shift, did not appear to be among the pre-approved.
Another potential juror said he works on a small farm and was trying to get his crops planted, with Thursday being the first day he had been able to plant.
And another said he rents apartments in Bloomington-Normal and would lose out on commissions from that.
Asked about their previous jury duty experience, one said he had served on two murder trials. This person was pre-approved.
Jury selection continues this morning.