Tom's #Mailbag, Dec. 21, 2018


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URBANA — Lawyers for accused kidnapper and killer Brendt Christensen are seeking information on whether the Chinese president talked about the case with President Donald Trump during his trip to China in November, according to prosecutors.

His lawyers are apparently trying to determine whether such discussions improperly affected Attorney General Jeff Sessions' decision to seek the death penalty in this case, an allegation prosecutors called "far-flung" and "not based on fact or evidence."

"To attempt to prove his far-flung theory, the defendant seeks to require the United States to engage in a fishing expedition to search for information to which the defendant is not entitled," U.S. Attorney John Childress wrote Friday in a filing asking the court to reject the request.

The request for these communications was apparently filed under seal in July, with Christensen's lawyers asking for "any discussions between President Trump or White House officials and President Xi (Jinping) or Chinese officials" regarding the case that were "communicated with the Attorney General or any other senior member of the Department of Justice."

Prosecutors decided in January to seek the death penalty against Christensen, a decision that was ultimately made by Sessions.

Christensen was arrested June 30, 2017, on kidnapping charges, three weeks after visiting University of Illinois scholar Yingying Zhang was last seen. Later, the government amended the charge to kidnapping resulting in death, even though Ms. Zhang's body has not been found. Christensen is also charged with lying to federal agents.

The search for Ms. Zhang made international headlines and caught the attention of top U.S. and Chinese officials.

During the search, the FBI director was briefed on the case, and the Chinese ambassador to the U.S. indicated he was following the case.

Last August, Ms. Zhang's parents sent a letter to Trump appealing for help finding their daughter, who is presumed dead by the FBI.

Christensen's attorneys are apparently trying to determine whether Sessions' decision was "arbitrary and capricious in violation of the Eighth Amendment," Childress wrote, but he said there's no evidence to support that.

"This self-serving allegation is not based on fact or evidence, but on a series of speculative leaps," Childress wrote.

On top of that, he argued that prosecutors aren't required to hand over internal government documents.

Also on Friday, prosecutors said they have more than met the requirements to provide pretrial evidence to Christensen's lawyers.

Earlier this month, Christensen's lawyers filed a motion saying they've been overwhelmed with the amount of evidence they've received and asked prosecutors to disclose what they'll use at trial.

In their response Friday, prosecutors said they've already provided an outline of the evidence and argued that previous court rulings don't require providing a detailed explanation of how they plan to use it.

Christensen "has received full discovery of the factual basis for the aggravating factors; that information is contained in the Notice of Intent (to seek the death penalty), the outline, and the comprehensive discovery he has already received," Childress wrote. "Thus, his motion to compel actually seeks to learn in detail 'how the Government plans to use the evidence it has amassed.' As the courts have repeatedly made clear, the United States has no obligation to either preview its evidentiary presentation or investigate on behalf of the defendant."

Prosecutors also argued the request doesn't make sense because they could find more evidence during the ongoing investigation between now and the trial, which is scheduled for April 2019.