Urbana attorney STEVE BECKETT has been working with the family of missing University of Illinois scholar Yingying Zhang since shortly after her accused kidnapper, Brendt Christensen, was arrested.
Chinese students who had taken Beckett's American trial advocacy course for international law students reached out to him when Ms. Zhang's family was preparing to come to Champaign after her disappearance. A Chinese attorney in Chicago who knew of Beckett's work with China's legal community also asked him to be the family's legal "eyes and ears" in court.
In this week's Campus Conversation, Beckett talks with JULIE WURTH about his relationship with Ms. Zhang's family, the differences between the Chinese and U.S. legal systems, and the parents' desire to find out what happened to their daughter.
Beckett and News-Gazette reporter BEN ZIGTERMAN also discuss new details that emerged in court last week about the FBI's interactions with Christensen and his wife — including one "made for TV moment" — and the girlfriend who secretly recorded his incriminating statements.
How often do you correspond with the family?
"It just depends on what's going on. Even when they went back to China in the fall, it was probably once every two weeks. But there haven't been a lot of things going on (until last week)....
This is an unusual situation, because I have clients who are half a world away who speak Chinese, and I don't speak Chinese. But I do have a lawyer who practices in Chicago who's a Chinese national. And then I've got Xiaolin Hao, the boyfriend, who is in Beijing in school, and he speaks English. And so if we have conference calls, it typically will be (the Chicago lawyer), Xiaolin and me. The other thing you have to worry about is the time, because it's 13 hours difference...
But we have a very good working relationship. They're really wonderful folks. I got to visit in their home where they were staying in Urbana. I got to tell them that when I was a boy I delivered newspapers to the house where they were living. I just think that they got acclimated to the community. I know they got acclimated to us, to the lawyers, that they felt comfortable. So I thought it was, in a horrible situation, about as good as you could do. We had wonderful support from the university as well."
Have the differences between the American and Chinese judicial systems been confusing for the family?
"Absolutely. There's no such thing as a jury trial in China. Government officials would make the decision. So you have a court, which is multiple judges, usually three but as many as five. You have the prosecutor, and you would have a representative of the committee on security from the (Communist) Party.
I've been at conferences and I've talked to Chinese defense lawyers — the Chinese defense lawyers get to do literally nothing. They don't get to cross-examine witnesses. They can stand up in court and say, 'I ask that this court do justice for my client.' The client is standing in the dock, and the judges can question the defendant, and use the defendant's silence as guilt....
They also think we're crazy because we let ordinary citizens decide important issues like a case like this, instead of someone who is well-trained, a professional and who is somehow affiliated with the government."
How long do you think the trial might take?
"My sense is this is a case of more months than weeks. At least two months, maybe three months. Because you have to pick a jury. As I heard them talking about it, 2,000 juror questionnaires are being sent out. You're talking about lots of people coming in. It's a death penalty case, people have opinions about the death penalty. They're discussing individual voir dire (interviews of potential jurors). I've done that, that's one juror at a time, if you can imagine. The jury selection process could take weeks."