URBANA — The trial of accused kidnapper and killer Brendt Christensen will be streamed from the courthouse in Peoria to a viewing room at the Urbana courthouse, a recognition of the interest the University of Illinois community has shown in the case.
U.S. District Judge James Shadid approved the closed-circuit video "to accommodate members of the public and the victim's family."
Yingying Zhang, a visiting UI scholar from China, was last seen June 9, 2017, entering Christensen's car near a bus stop on campus.
Christensen told the FBI he let her out a few blocks away, while prosecutors believe he took her back to his apartment, where FBI biologists are expected to testify that Ms. Zhang's blood and DNA were found.
She is presumed dead by the FBI, though her body hasn't been located.
After she went missing, the local Chinese community in particular helped raise awareness about Ms. Zhang's disappearance and provided for her family when they stayed here for several months.
Her family is planning to return to Illinois from China for the trial, according to their Urbana-based attorney, Steve Beckett, though they haven't decided whether they'll stay in Peoria, where the trial was moved to, or Urbana, where they developed strong ties with the community.
"The judge acknowledged that the family had stated already it had a comfort level in Urbana. I think this was meant to address that if they choose to stay in Urbana," Beckett said Tuesday of the video feed to Urbana.
They haven't determined yet "whether they'd come to Urbana or try to establish a base in Peoria," he said.
When Shadid moved the trial to Peoria, mostly for logistical reasons, he recognized the family's connections to Urbana.
"The factor which weighs most heavily against transfer of this case to the Peoria Division is the fact that the victim's family will likely be somewhat inconvenienced," Shadid wrote in December.
However, he said other factors outweighed this, writing that "the court believes the timely ruling on this issue five months ahead of the scheduled trial will allow the United States to assist the victim's family in developing support and ties to the Peoria community as well."
And when the trial was pushed back from April to June 3, Shadid acknowledged the family's desire not to have proceedings start after the two-year anniversary of Ms. Zhang's disappearance.
"The victim's family has already been inconvenienced by the change of venue," Shadid wrote in February. "While it is perhaps a small consolation, (the) June 3, 2019, trial date accommodates the family's wishes."
Beckett said he has never seen a case streamed to another courthouse before.
"It's new to me," he said, though he has used a video conference between a prison and a courtroom to reduce travel.
"Video is used with some frequency in the court, but not like this," Beckett said. "I just think we're going to see a lot of new things we've never seen before."
The court-controlled closed-circuit video feed was approved Tuesday by Shadid as part of a "decorum order," which lays out the courtroom conduct expected at the trial.
The viewing room in Urbana will be considered an extension of the Peoria courtroom, with all rules of conduct applying to both rooms during the trial.
The trial is expected to last about two months, with jury selection and the guilt phase possibly wrapping up before Independence Day. If Christensen is convicted, it would be followed by a sentencing phase to determine whether he deserves life in prison or the death penalty.