The former attorneys for convicted kidnapper and killer Brendt Christensen are learning more about their former client as his case moves on to the penalty phase in Peoria.
In this week’s “Legally Speaking” podcast, EVAN BRUNO of Bruno Law Offices in Urbana explains to staff writer Mary Schenk why he and his two partners extracted themselves from the labor-intensive case almost two years ago.
Two months after you were hired by Christensen in 2017, you asked Judge Colin Bruce to let you out of representing him on charges of kidnapping resulting in the death of Yingying Zhang. Why?
We reached a point where ... the task of defending a death-penalty case in federal court through private counsel was not something the client could afford financially.
That’s not atypical when a case changes in nature and the defendant has gone from (being accused of) a serious case to the most serious case that you can find anywhere in the legal system. It’s apples and oranges to talk about a federal criminal case and a federal death-penalty case.
You have called Christensen’s public defenders, Elisabeth Pollock and George Taseff, ‘total all-stars.’ What do you think of their strategy of admitting to the jury from the outset that he murdered Ms. Zhang?
I wasn’t there for the strategy decision. ... I’m not going to comment on that.
As a matter of law, the defense is not entitled to concede a client’s guilt if the client does not want them to concede his guilt. I’m sure everyone in the courtroom from the government to the defense attorneys to the judge are aware of that law, which is actually a recent Supreme Court case from 2018 called Louisiana v. McCoy. (It) basically says, among other things, a defendant has total say over whether his attorneys concede guilt or do not concede guilt.
You have described some rules in the criminal code as unnecessarily weighing against a defendant. Give an example.
If someone is arrested for a first-time driving under the influence (violation) ... he is not allowed to leave the state. Not leaving the state was relevant when Abraham Lincoln was riding on the back of a horse and leaving the state was a big deal. Nowadays, we have people who need to go to work (in another state) or to St. Louis for a conference.
In 2019, it doesn’t operate to prevent people from fleeing, to make people safe. It is simply a form of punishment.
Did your previous experience as a law clerk for Appellate Court Justice Robert Steigmann, researching and helping him draft opinions, prepare you for private practice?
It prepared me really well for certain aspects of the job. There’s nothing you can do at a desk that will prepare you for giving opening statements to a jury or arguing a hearing in front of a judge. ... It did foster my inner law nerd, and I’m proud to say I remain a total law geek. It’s helped me love the law and love the search for the right legal answer.